You look tired. Come and rest for a minute. Maybe you’d like to sit and drink some tea? On long days like these I find a pot of mint tea is perfect. Ahh look, the pot is ready. Careful as I pour, the ceremony requires quite a lot of splashing. There you go. It’s sweet, no? I can tell by your face you haven’t had Moroccan tea before. You’ll have it many times before you leave. Is this your first time to Marrakech? Hmm, I remember when I first arrived. The sun had set hours before, yet the city still felt alive. The oppressive heat grants respite in the evening– perhaps that’s where the evening vivacity comes from. I remember leaning out on my balcony and listening as Guinean drums drifted up and took hold of the evening air. Together they danced round the date trees, whispered through the hammams, and fell laughing back around me. Such magic! Yet even after a year the spell has still not been broken.
Ahhh you have finished your glass quickly! Let me pour you some more. And please eat! There are cookies and sweets, some crishlet left over from Ashura, and please try the msemon. It is far superior to anything you find on the street.
Will you go and visit much of this country? Many lives could be lived here and it would still keep secrets from you. Please, you must visit the painted streets of Chefchaouen! And, of course, the mighty Sahara. Though do not forget the coast: Essaouira is not far from where we sit now, and it is a sight that everyone should see once. Go get lost in Fez, sip the northern tea in Tanga, and watch the sunset from the Kasbah in Tetuan! Though before you go and do any of these things, there are three experiences that you must complete here in Marrakech. After living here and postponing my life for a year, these are the experiences I will never forget.
The first experience was one I did not have until the wane of my stay here. I probably would not have appreciated it had it come any sooner. Have you ever looked to the west of the city? You may have seen the Atlas mountains holding silent watch over the desert. These mountains run from the southern part of the country all the way north until they gaze out over the straight towards Spain. Villages, paths, passes, and mule tracks crisscross the myriad valleys, mountains, and canyons of the range. I was fortunate enough to spend a week backpacking through some of these areas. I do not need to tell you of the hospitality as it is something you will experience everywhere in Morocco. Nor do I need to elaborate on the beauty. There is no part to this country that is without its charm. What I wish to impart to you is the dynamic nature of these ancient hills.
While it is possible to hike in the Atlas without a guide, your visit will be much improved by someone who knows the lay of the land. Almost always your guide will be male; it is unheard of for women to leave family and home to go off and travel between various villages. It is especially unheard of for them to lead a bunch of foreigners on these travels. But what I should truly say is that it was unheard of. The dynamic is changing.
There are currently three female guides in Morocco. This may seem incredibly small, yet the mere fact that there are any is extremely surprising. Guides must be knowledgeable of the area they work in, which generally means having been born there or having lived there for a long time. Also, they must be accepted and welcomed by the communities they visit, else their work will be impossible. Unfortunately for a woman to be a guide she has a significant uphill battle. You must understand how this culture approaches the difference between a man and a woman, especially in the rural villages which have remained apart from the tourism, trade, and general westernization that the cities have seen. It is generally accepted that the woman’s domain is the home, and all the duties of its maintenance fall to her. The outside world is the man’s domain, which is why you will not see any single women at a cafe. Therefore, for a woman to become a guide she must challenge some of the most basics tenets of her culture.
Go and visit these mountains so that you may be led by one of these three guides. It is not often that you can watch the rapid evolution of a culture. Right now that experience is possible. Please seize it. Even if you do not find that experience wondrous in itself, the mountains will always be there to humble you.
Oh my! I have been talking for too long and your cup is empty! Allow me to pour you some more. The last cups of the pot are always the best for they are the strongest. And please eat more, you can’t leave me with an empty stomach.
The second experience is also in the Atlas mountains. This is an activity that can only be accomplished in the winter. You will have to leave early and I recommend you take a taxi. The only other transport would be by moto (which would be suicidal) or an unregistered bus (not a great idea). You will tell them to take you to Okaimdan. As you leave the city and move into the mountains you’ll begin to join a large stream of vehicles going to the same location. You have just become involved in one of the largest community activities in Marrakech. The purpose of your journey is to shred some mad gnar at the ski area on top of the pass. You may be dissuaded by the crowds. Don’t worry, you’ll find out soon enough they’re not a problem. Also, don’t be surprised if, towards the top, the traffic stops and people begin leaving their cars to walk. This is entirely expected. Join them. Groups of boys will be banging on handheld drums and singing, clap along. If you haven’t realized it yet the Marrakchi clap is a cultural foundation. Now is when you need to brace yourself, the sight you’re going to see when you come round the bend and see the ski area is not what you might expect.
The ski area is located on the edge of a bowl with the opposite side taken over by a lake, small huts around the lower parts, and a large ski club to the side. This club is one of the leftovers of the French occupation. Now it is a haven for tourists, a haven they need from the confusion inside the bowl. It feels like a quarter of the city has come out to enjoy the ski area. Vendors hawk rental skis that appear to have been pulled directly from a seventies ski magazine. The neon explosion of the seventies and eighties has made a rebirth in the mountains of the Atlas. Then there are the donkeys. Dour faced animals carrying screaming children or overburdened with gear are destined for the base of the lifts. And of course there’s the people. Clogging every inch of the bowl, yelling kids, swaggering teenagers, and giggling couples, all out to be a part of what can only be called The Scene.
Initially you may think that everyone is up there to go skiing, especially when you see the line for the lifts. Yet once you’ve grabbed your gear and are standing in line, you’ll find yourself whisked to the front and thrown into a chair bound for the top. The people standing in line have no intention of skiing, they just want to ride the lift and enjoy the solitude.
Being a couple in Morocco is like walking a tightrope with salivating wolverines waiting on both ends of the wire. There is no private space for you to meet, and should you be seen in public by an acquaintance then your parents will be sure to find out. As we all know, parents finding out about a romantic fling is never good. This is where the lift comes in. Room for two. Half an hour ride. No prying eyes. It’s perfect. You’ll begin to pick up on this as you go up. Generally two humans aren’t attached so effectively at the mouth. But here it is again, you are being provided with a glance into the changing evolution of Morocco. Will these young couples grow up to change their country? Or will they return to the old ways, brushing off these youthful experiences?
Whether you ski or not, it is important to see a city let loose. In Okaimdan, at the top of the pass, you can see just that. An entire community shrugging off responsibility for a day, just so that they can enjoy being and living in the awesome country that is Morocco.
Oh damn! I rambled again. And you’re cup is so dreadfully empty! Hmm, well it appears we only have enough tea for one more glass. Which is perfect as there is just one more experience I must tell you about.
The last experience is Marrakech. Just the city. Nothing more, nothing less. Should you fail to do anything else in this country, don’t fail to heed this advice. Magic is still alive, it breathes in the red walls. The people know it. The cats know it. I hope you’ll know it.
Start with a walk. You can walk anywhere, but you must walk. Walk the old city. Walk the new city. See the differences. Where do the cats like to live? Find their hideaways. I can tell you that they won’t be near the tourists. They found the havens of the old city, the quiet corners, dappled with sunshine in the morning and cool as the forest in the afternoon. Walk around the walls. It will take half the day, but do it. When the sun sets, find someone who knows your heart and lay beneath the walls. Watch the olive trees drink the last drops of sunlight from the day. Can you count the stars? Have you been to the big square? Listen to the stories; they won’t be in your language, yet they will speak to you. Dance in the circles of humans. Drink the tea, it is the blood of Morocco. Eat the snails. Eat the crazy bread. Eat the couscous, spill it in your lap, laugh with the rest. Get lost in this city. Wander until nothing seems familiar, until you cannot tell north from south, until you’re not even sure of the country. Just get lost.
I see that your cup is empty once again. The pot is empty too, and so our business here is concluded. I hope that I provided sufficiently for your body as well as your mind, and perhaps even your soul. Enjoy your travels, enjoy this city, it will never be the same as it is in the specific moment you visit. Cherish that unique gift and go with peace. .مع السلام
This article was written by John Rhoades. Send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: John Rhoades