Any designer can attest, at least somewhere on our bucket travel list you will find Morocco. It has long been on my list of countries to check off, so when my daughter decided to spend a semester abroad, I thought here is my chance to ease my motherly worry and check out the sights I had long heard about. I kept a travel journal longer than any other I had recorded in my years of traveling. Perhaps Morocco’s magic is a testament of my need to capture every little smell, taste and sensation.
Arriving first in the county’s capital, Rabat, late at night I was worried could and would we fit in. Would our western clothing give us away and could we blend enough to enjoy it. I felt self conscious on that first night, but locals were neutral – even cordial. We imagined our western wardrobe would be scrutinized when we arrived and while we were dressed conservatively, no one gave us a second glance. We choose to stay in all of the cities’ medinas (old walled cities dating back over 1200 years as in the case of Fez). These walled, narrow streets not big enough for a car, really just an alleyway wind and snake through a part of many cities in Northern Africa. It’s fascinating that despite the challenges, locals have adapted to this condensed living by celebrating what it gives back in its sense of community. Little stalls are cut out of the walls and merchants are selling everything from olives, bread, meats, vegetables, textiles, clothing, snakes, fish – really anything you can think of is offered.
Our first morning was pierced by the scratchy on and off click of the loud speaker hosting the morning call to prayer – at 5:30 am this sound was alarming but as the days moved on it startled us less and fell into the background much like church bells in a piazza or the clatter of a train like in my first apartment in Chicago.
Morocco is one of those places where it’s hard to quickly fall into a rhythm but as time past we found it. One minute it delights and amazes, the next it bothers and bombards you. I have called this particular trip a journey not just a vacation because I am here with a purpose – to learn if it feels safe enough for me to leave my daughter here for a 3.5 month study abroad.
Worrying is my motherly pastime, but cast me back 20+ years ago and I am sure I caused my parents a few sleepless nights wondering where I was off to. I even in my late 20’s contemplated the Peace Corp. My career path might not reveal that evidence of a liberal eco-fighter but deep inside I had youth’s idealism.
Once I let down my guard, I started to notice something fascinating about this exotic, colorful place, where haggling is not only suggested – it’s required to earn your stripes. The bustle and busy market place at first was overwhelming, but what I realized is that the sense of community is resting right below its crowded surface. As a tourist you might in fact be the outsider but rest assure everyone around knows each other. And within a day they “know you”.
Morocco surprised me often with its contrast of good and then better. The good would sneak up on you like the gruff man walking in front of us one day- a local – silently witnessing him stop at the old lady on the street who we have seen everyday, he reached in his humble pocket and offered her change – she reacts to him as if he does it everyday – I think he might.
The softness of the people here in Morocco smoothes out the edges of this harsh desert landscape and soaring temperatures. Their kindness and sense of community is suddenly noticed before the dirt and grime of the street. Even their sense of pride in their ancient city reveals itself as they wash the dirty bricks with buckets of precious water, sweeping up trash early and late preparing for the next rush of traffic.
The hawkers as they are called (not sure why) -selling everything from local crafts of fine Sabra silk blankets (Sabra is a silk spun from the agave plant and intricate textiles are woven into amazing colors for bed linens, table coverings.) Berber carpets, trinkets, bracelets, copper and brass hand-tamped platters, tables, lamps, chandeliers are persistent and forward coming at you with a friendly sales pitch where ever you go – at first this makes us uncomfortable coming from a tidy retail culture. But as time moves on you realize a simple and polite no thanks veers them away with a kind thank you madame, no problem. Or better yet stop, hear their unique story and not only will they try sell you something beautiful and special but additionally they will offer you delicious mint tea and an interesting, meaningful conversation about their trade. Rest assure the designer in me couldn’t pass up a few well chosen gems – leather pouf, colorful textiles, hand painted tea glasses, and my favorite a little leather, hand crafted camel. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t come back with more material beauties but quickly I realize I came back with so much more.
Gentleness can sometimes be hard to find everyday- we don’t see it in our fast paced 24/7 culture but it exists in Morocco, and this is a warm reminder that we are’t alone on this planet, that our understanding of all the problems that plague our troubled world can’t be exclusively viewed through rose tinted glasses.
This blog post might disappoint as it didn’t necessarily focus on the all beauty of the fabulous riad’s we stayed in like Riad Joya in Marrakesh or Palais Amani in Fes. Riad Joya provided us with a cool refuge from the hot souring heat. The sand colored linen drapes, soft toned stone court yard with hand worked lanterns and trays was a delight. Palais Amani a palace from the 19th century restored in the 1920’s then recently made into an amazing guesthouse. Moroccan tiles, coupled with wrought iron railings on stairs, beautiful linen drapes block the sun and create privacy on the large amazing metal and glass doors. No detail was left untouched fine white crisp bedding, lamps and chandeliers beautiful locally crafted brass work, ample furniture tastefully upholstered created a large bedroom and great sitting room for each suite. High ceilings gave a remarkable view to the Riad’s lush well-preserved garden of fruit trees, a stone and mosaic fountain – all maintained and restored in the in-depth renovation.
The Riads, the delicious restaurants we ate at, the lunch on Sir Richard Branson’s terrace of his Kasbah Tamadot soaking up beauty from the Atlas Mountains, the colorful, exquisite Jardin Maroelles, Yves St Laurent’s garden in Marrakesh. I can see where YSL drew inspiration from Moroccan colors, carved shapes of wood and metal. Vibrant Ochre -cobalt blue, spicy saffron are colors that stand out to me against the terra cotta buildings. The Berbers themselves fascinating, colorful in their traditional wardrobe – a population of people dwindling but standing with their tradition and language for over 9000 years. The oldest living culture we have as humans.
As I write this I am struck by the fact that while the beauty was indelible and inspiring to this designing eye it is the warmth of the people, the kindness and generosity of their spirit that made an indelible mark on my motherly heart. My sweet daughter shared stories of her love and fascination with these remarkable people. I thank her loving host family for warmly caring for her for those months.
Below is a list of the beautiful places we stayed: