Kerri Ough - a work in progress...

Morocco Part 1: Casablanca to Marrakech

In late April, my husband Brian and I, joined by our friends John and Gabrielle, set out on a 15-day trip to Morocco. Morocco wasn’t on my list of next places to visit, but it came up during our Skype brainstorming chat late last year when deciding where to go on our “Couple’s Adventure Trip.”

My last two trips were to Belize (2014) and Hawaii (2016) where I spent a lot time reading and relaxing by the ocean. On both of those trips, my favourite memory and best story emerged from the most challenging part: in Belize, it was becoming a certified SCUBA diver and in Hawaii it was our 22 mile trek on Kauai to Kalalau Beach.  This would be my first trip to North Africa and I was excited to see how I would do there, and I wanted to see what I was made of.

From the books and blogs I read before going I knew I might find it challenging being a blond-haired woman in Morocco. I’m a professional traveller and an experienced socializer but I am an introvert at the core. Grateful though I was for the warnings from friends and blogs to prepare to be swarmed in the markets, to either be harassed or ignored by men, and to expect to be asked for money everywhere I went, I wish I could go back in time and tell everyone to ease up on the advice and remind myself to relax and enjoy my trip. That said, it was one of the most beautiful trips I’ve taken and I did appreciate being prepared for the busyness of the souks. And I’m not sure anywhere else in the world will ever compare to the Sahara Desert in terms of far away places to star gaze, be alone with my thoughts, and to take stunning photographs. But I am getting way ahead of myself.

If you decide to go, my unsolicited advice is to be yourself, be respectful of the culture and remember that you’re on vacation in a place you may never see again, so enjoy it while you can.

Casablanca

Our first day driving would take us from Casablanca to Safi by way of a coastal drive. It was Sunday, a day of open air markets and recreation for the locals. We started off walking the grounds of the The Hassan II Mosque or Grande Mosquée Hassan II the largest mosque in Morocco. It was beautiful, ornate and the grounds were filled with tourists (like us!) 

MyFriends_morocco-day1

When we left the Mosque we were immediately stuck in a traffic jam. What we didn’t know was we were approaching Morocco Mall – the largest western type mall in Morocco just a few miles ahead.  Apparently on the weekends people from all over Morocco flock there. I can now attest to that, having seen how rammed the parking lot was.

I dressed modestly in Morocco despite the heat. I wore long sleeves, long pants,  sandals, and a scarf around my neck in case I wanted to cover my head. I only covered up a couple of times, mostly because the sun on my naked Canadian scalp in the Sahara Desert was too much to bear.  I appreciated being covered when we drove through small towns and in the villages in the mountains. I remember that first day while I was adjusting to my new environment, how aghast I was at the tourists who stood out like sore thumbs dressed in short shorts and tank tops – all ages of people clearly going for comfort over culture. I thought about this a lot on the trip, the difference between how I chose to behave versus some of the more flamboyant tourists we came across.  I’m not sure one is better than the other and I’m still mulling about it from the comfort of my Canadian home, dressed in short shorts and a tank top on a sweaty summer day.

We came across our first checkpoint leaving Casablanca while John was driving. John speaks Arabic which was a boon to the trip. At the checkpoint we were asked for the rental car paperwork, our passports and licenses. John and Brian were in the front, Gabrielle and I were in the back. It was our first of probably 15 checkpoints over the course of the trip. At first it made me tense, and later on in the trip, I was used to it, and it felt more like a nuisance than anything else. When we were pulled over when I was driving a week later, the two officers spoke in polite French to me, but to each other in Arabic, and John overheard one say something like  “…look, a woman driver.” Probably more a commentary that our husbands were in the backseat and Gabrielle and I in the front seat. It certainly wasn’t because women don’t drive, I saw lots of women driving every day we were there.

It took a full day for me to get comfortable. I was exhausted from travel and sensitive to everything: the heat, the looks from people, my neurotic mind. At one point we drove through an open air market where donkeys and people crowded the road we were driving and the smell of cooking meat filled the air and people swarmed the tents for food and goods and I was just overwhelmed.  Looking back on it later that night I thought about how invigorating that chaos was. I was uncomfortable a lot that first day but remained upbeat and open. I think this is why I travel now – to push myself out of my comfort zone. It makes my comfort zone all the more comfortable when I return to it.

We were traveling by map – no GPS, no data on our phones, and the roads weren’t well marked. But for a few wrong turns here and there we always got to where we were going – eventually.

That day I met my first public bathroom. You really have to get into the spirit of travel and let go of any prissiness you may have when you’re on the road. I suggest packing everything you could possibly need – tissues, wipes, water bottle, instant coffee and always have food and water in the car.  Most importantly, bring a sense of humour because when you arrive at your first public  “toilet” and you have your period and it’s 90 degrees outside, and there is no toilet, or toilet paper, or garbage can, you will laugh instead of cry.

morocco

For this type of thing, I’m like: “Bring it on, hole in the ground.” I had read on a travel blog before I left that I should bring toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, ziploc bags for garbage because public bathrooms were less than ideal. So, I obeyed that advice blindly and ended up using every single thing I brought, every day on the trip. I am forever grateful to that random blogger for taking the time to write that list out.  I think the bathroom photo was the first photo I sent home to my sisters to share with my Dad, so he would know what a great time I was having.

The rest of the drive was filled with seaside cliffs, sheep and goats, families shepherding their animals across the road, and coral and rose coloured structures in the towns we passed. It was beautiful already, and the sea air was warm and welcome. We stopped to stretch and wander and take a few photos. Our only group regret was not stopping earlier in the day at the beach near El Jadida. Would have been a beautiful way to start the day. But, it was a long driving day and we trucked onward.

Casa-Safi-3-dayone Casa-to-Safi-2-dayone Casa-to-Safi-roadtrip-day1

We arrived in Safi early, searched for a hotel, and ate a beautiful seaside meal of fresh fish while a soccer game played in the background. My preferred 6pm dinner hour would be delayed to 8:30-9pm for the rest of the trip and I would just have to suck it up and go with the flow. We walked along Pottery Alley filled with dishes and trinkets in beautiful colours and mosaics. It’s beautiful how ceramics are used in Morocco, not just on on decorative plates and mugs, but on public water fountains or on concrete walls.  It made everything look like beautiful pieces of art and it dazzled me.  I wondered if we could make mosaic art all over town back home, and would the ceramics survive the cracking cold of Canadian winter?

Safi-Pottery-day1

That night we slept the sleep of champions, a second full night of uninterrupted sleep, exhaustion set deep in our bones. I watched Brian fall asleep while scenes from the day swirled around in my head. My dreams that night were wild and vivid processing all the new sensory input: people, animals, the sea, the market and the colours. We woke late the next morning to breakfast with John and Gabrielle and ahead of us another road trip, this time to Marrakech. We didn’t exactly start on the beaten path that day but the route we chose was entertaining.

DAY TWO

Right out of the gate we made a wrong turn onto a “yellow road” meaning a road less travelled than a “red road” main highway. But the signage being poor as it was, and our group, leading by instinct, hopefulness and the sun, didn’t turn back to correct ourselves. What I’ve found is there are two kinds of people on a road trip, people who stop to turn around and correct course, even if it means backtracking a little, and the second type, people who refuse to retrace their steps. There were two of each in our car. This bodes well for adventure, and less so for arriving at your destination on time. What it meant, practically speaking was we would spend the next 2 to 3 hours on country roads no wider than our car, driving through tiny villages, playing chicken with trucks carrying boulders from a nearby quarry, and not really coming across any gas stations of public restrooms for awhile. We weren’t exactly lost, but neither did we really know where we were. When we finally came across signage and referred to our trusty map, none of the town names were on the map, or if they were, they were anglicized versions of Arabic town names. This made us all laugh. Nervously.

Signage-day2-morocco

Lucky for us, John spoke Arabic and none of us was prideful enough NOT to stop to ask for directions. At the same time as he hopped out of the car, I remembered the iPhone compass, a handy little gadget we would use for the rest of our days in the car. We needed to drive due — west, I think? — and while John was making new friends, I confirmed that we were indeed going in the right direction, just on the wrong road. The men who helped us find our way seemed pleased to talk to John. I think they thought it was funny the four of us driving to Marrakech on what we have now decided was a quarry road. It was slow going but not dangerous and probably a more beautiful drive than had we hit the highway first thing.

john-locals-directions-day2

We were eating all the car snacks and drinking the last of our giant 5 gallon bottle of water and now we all had to pee on a road where no bathrooms would be. It’s funny, in Canada, it would be no issue to jump out of the car, find a bush and pee behind it, but there, it seemed every square inch of land had people on it. Even in the country side, you look left, there’s a shepherd with a herd of sheep, in front of us, a group of kids wearing backpacks walking to school, to the right on the hill, women cutting hay by hand. There was nowhere to squat. Brian was our driver that day and he has a low tolerance for two things: hunger and a full bladder. We saw a small line of trees and sent him to go pee. The rest of us would wait until the next gas station. It’s important to keep your driver happy. It was such a beautiful spot to stop so I took my camera out and started snapping away. John and Gabrielle, our dear friends, married just three weeks before us in 2012, would be the subject many photos by my hand. And Brian? He certainly didn’t blend in there: straw hat, red pants, going pee behind a tree. So many reasons I love travelling with that man.

JohnandGaby-day2-fieldbrian-redpants-day2-morocco

Even though we weren’t on the right road, it felt right like the right place to be. I remember the moment we saw a sign for Marrakech, we all cheered. It was still 80 miles away but dammit there was a sign with a name of a city we all recognized. At the cross in the road, we stopped so I could snap a photo of the Arabic stop sign and our Creta and the beautiful backdrop of Morocco.Creta-StopSign

Our destination that day was Riad Bledna, a beautiful organic farm located about 15 minutes from Marrakech city centre. By the time we reached this sign, we were still far enough from the hotel to get lost at least one more time. We stopped in a village 5 minutes later and John jumped out of the car to pick up sandwiches, fries and drinks for everyone. It was possibly the most delicious street-meat sandwich I’ve ever eaten. The combination of fresh bread, fresh grilled meat and fresh grown olives was magic in my mouth. We gorged on sandwiches, drove toward Riad Bledna, drove too far, stopped for sweet, sweet (oh god, too sweet) mint tea at Cafe Atlas, realized where we were meant to turn. We double backed toward our accommodations - where we would be sleeping for the next three nights, and pulled up to this. Not too shabby eh?

RiadBledna-day2-morocc

That night we dined and slept, readying ourselves for our big day in the souks. Read that blog: HERE.

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