Alva and I have been talking the past perhaps five years about travelling together. I have a list from 2012 where we have written down some dreams and plans. Back then we had an obsession with camels; so our main criterion was that there should be camels. As we grew older and more mature the focus shifted more to us wanting to experience and explore a different culture. The plans were mostly in a dream stage. We wanted to think it was eventually going to happen, but I barely dared to believe it. This spring we found ourselves being of age to travel alone,with enough saved money to follow through. Being students on a tight budget the majority of far-away countries were ruled out. In the end we settled on Morocco, not realising then how 100 % correctly the trip would match our criteria. We got to see so many sides of the society, the culture, meet so many people, have such interesting conversations and also: ride camels. The trip gave a great deal more than I had expected, and I feel blessed with the luck we had in situations that just happened to us.
We set off on the evening of the 13th of June. Going through security and finding our plane we can’t quite fathom that this is really happening, after all these years of dreaming and scheming. Our route to Morocco has two stops, in Hamburg and Frankfurt. That’s what you have to do to get cheap tickets. We have a layover in Hamburg. We find a café with couches, perfect for sleeping in, but at 2:00 the café owner wakes us up and says we have to leave, because apparently they are closed 2:00-4:00, and even though the couches are out in the open hall they feel a need to kick us out and rope them off. Not the most comfortable night in my life, but definitely a thing I feel like you should do some time in your youth, just because you can.
We fly to Frankfurt, sleep while waiting for the next flight and get onto the plane to Marrakech. Little by little we start to understand that this is not just a regular sized adventure. It hits me for real when we look out the airplane window, cross the north coast of Africa, and later see a massive desert: barren land as far as the eyes can see. The plane hits the ground and we step out into the heat.
The walls of the airport are decorated with patterned tiles and the signs are in Arabic and French. One minute in and Morocco is already delivering culture. We’re picked up at the airport by the hotel. We don’t find anywhere to fasten our seat belts, but the taxi-driver reassuringly tells us “It’s not obligatory”. Man skata seden dit man kommer, antar jag. In the car we excitedly look at everything around us. The palm trees, the houses that all have exactlyt he same colour, all the motorbikes. The driver looks quite amused when I squeal at the sight of some camels by the road.
We are welcomed at “Riad Losra” by a Moroccan couple that serves us traditional mint tea. Alva told me she usually doesn’t like mint tea, but that this was really nice. She would regret that later. Mint tea is like their thing. They serve it on all occasions all the time and it is unbearably sweet. The whole hotel is so pretty and the staff really helpful and kind.
They give us a city map, and let us chose our room because we are the only guests therefor the time being, and show us the roof terrace with a view over Marrakech. The city is flat, and then far away you can see the Atlas Mountains. The buildings are all around the same height, except for the mosques that stick up. Perhaps that was a conscious choice, like how the buildings in the Vatican are not allowed to be taller than St Peter’s church.
Marrakech is a big city. We live in the part called the Medina, the old town. It’s surrounded by a city wall, which helps the navigation. Outside of the Medina there are a lot of other areas where people live, but tourism is centred in the Medina.
This is a map of the Medina. I have marked out our hotel and a few of the places we went to. (The souks, Jemaa el-Fnaa, Jardin Majorelle, the Madrasa, the Koutoubia mosque, Palais el Badii, the Hammam.) Later on when I mention different places you can go back to this map to get a better picture. The black lines are the city wall.
We put our things in the room and head out into the streets. The first thing that happens,five meters from our door, is that a guy on a motorbike starts talking to us, asking where we come from, buying us a bottle of water each from the little shop we pass by. This kind of attention is not what we’re used to. We thank him and keep walking along the street. Suddenly he is at our side again and won’t leave us alone. He seems harmless, but we don’t feel like having a random man tagging along, so we walk quickly and take the closest crossing street to shake him off. We applaud ourselves for having dealt with our first potential threat.
On this trip we faced so many situations that could have ended badly had we been more naïve, but so many amazing experiences that wouldn’t have happened had we been more afraid or paranoid. I’m quite proud of the balance we found of always having some doubt in the back of our minds, but not just following the big path. I suppose I didn’t learn anything from Red Riding Hood, but if you ask me, it’s more fun this way.We make our way south. We don’t know the way and Marrakech is a real labyrinth, but according to our map the main square should be in this general direction.It’s interesting, because a lot of the houses are quite plain and run down, but they have amazingly decorated doorframes everywhere. This naturally called foran ironic photo shoot.
Marrakech is most famous for the souks, the markets. There is a whole area where every part of every street is filled with people trying to sell the specialities of Morocco. There are spices, scarves, clothes, sandals, ceramics, lanterns, necklaces etc. There are super sweet pastries covered with flies, meat hanging freely and lying in open air, fish just lying on a layer of ice, also covered in flies. There’s a place with now living, soon-to-be-dinner, chicken behind the counter. I suddenly feel very comfortable being a vegetarian.
The salesmen (and yes, there are only men. Seriously, where are all the women?) are very pushy. They desperately try to make you come look at their things, and if you don’t they start shouting things after you.
Common strategies are for example trying to guess your nationality. Throughout our trip we were called Polish, several times, Russian, English, Norwegian, Ukrainian and one man even guessed Singapore. I don’t know how that would make us more interested in their things though.
If you approach and start looking at things they instantly hold up something to your face and name a price. Being Swedes we find this tactic bothering. Some are nice though. One man, a wood worker and turner, asks us to come and look at what he can do. He makes two identical pieces of lathed wood and puts them on strings and gives to us as gifts. The tricky thing is that some people want money for everything they do, even when you don’t ask them todo it, and some people really like giving away presents, and it’s hard to tell the difference. This man didn’t ask for anything in return, and was just friendly about it. So nice.
A man tells us he knows a place where they make the famous Moroccan argan oil, and tells us he’ll show us. He takes us to a shop full of spices,perfumes and oil. The shop owner is super friendly and tells us all about the different traditional herbs and soaps, and a lot about the argan oil that apparently is used for everything. We thank him for the demonstration and Alva asks to buy a bag of spices and some tea, but the man’s tone of voice suddenly becomes harsher when she passes on the oil. We then realise what this whole thing is all about. Even more so when we exit the shop and the man who showed the way asks for payment for the guiding. We pretend not to have heard and keep walking. (This will not be the last time we're brought to places by people. They seem to have some kind of friends helping friends system.)
It’s supposed to be a 20-minute walk from the hotel to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the big square, but it has taken us three hours. The square is full of people doing things for money. For example there are women doing henna, but they don’t only do it on those who ask for it. One lady walks up to Alva, grabs her hand and puts an ugly blob of henna on her hand, but we quickly walk away. Does that ever work to make people want to pay her? Alva washes it off but you still see an indefinable shape on her hand. Such a weird experience. There are people with monkeys on leashes who ask if you want to come and pet them. The animals look tired and miserable and we give those people a very pointed look. No thank you, we do not support this in the slightest. We also see cages crowded with small turtles. Are they for sale or just for show? We don’t know. In either case, it’s terrible. I buy a hat from desperate people who won’t let me leave. Pushy salesmen make me not want to buy their stuff, but I get it for half the price and it’s a nice hat so I’m not complaining. By the square there is a long row of horses and carriages. At first we thought it was some tourist attraction,but apparently it’s like another type of taxi, also used by the local population. We go to sit in the shade to just process all we have witnessed and try to understand that we actually have arrived in Morocco.
When we were younger we established that you haven’t been in a country for real when you’ve just been at the airport, and the asphalt outside the airport barely counts. You have to actually touch the grass. And sitting in the park, we find a straw of grass, and take a picture of me demonstratively touching it. We take out the nuts we bought in the souk and to our surprise we notice that the nuts have been packaged in a paper of maths homework, which is badly done us well;
20 * 0,001 is not 2 as far as I’m concerned.
We agree on that there will probably be more wtf-moments on this trip than we can count but it could be fun trying. For example, later I see a rib lying on the street. Alva sees a guy climbing up a wall. We are kind of too sleep-deprived to even be surprised. The sun starts setting and we decide to go look for dinner. We find a beautiful roof terrace with relatively cheap food (a meal for 50 dh, ~50 kr, ~5 €).
We ordered the traditional couscous and tajine. The dishes are cooked on burning coals in clay pots with this certain shape. The tajine is some kind of stew - for us vegetarians it was spiced vegetables – that is served with bread. The couscous is exactly the same thing, except for there’s couscous in it. When they served it they put the whole pot on the table, removed the cone-shaped top and left the still-hot bottom with the food. Same here as with the mint tea. We quite liked the dishes that first time, but then we realised that they were the only vegetarian options at the restaurants of Marrakech. We were so sick of it at the end of the week.
We walk home, following the outside of the wall, which is a hundred times easier. Sleep is welcome.
When we go downstairs in the morning breakfast is already on the table. The hotel hostess serves us bread, eggs and delicious homemade orange juice.
I can’t believe how lucky we were with the hotel. I mean we did do a fair bit of googling and research to find a good and relatively cheap place beforehand, but you can never know how it’s actually going to be in real life. This hotel was incredibly beautiful, clean and comfortable, and we happened to stay there right in between groups, which meant the place was completely empty and calm. It was inside the Medina, the old town, but it was far enough from the centre that it didn’t feel too touristy,and enabled us to walk around backstreets so we could see another side ofMarrakech. And also the staff were way more friendly and helpful and welcoming than hosts usually are. 10/10.
We get ourselves a bottle of water and head out.
In preparation for the trip I had read that there is a garden outside of the Medina, and I love gardens, so the first thing on the agenda this day was visiting that. We pass a large enclosure of scattered palm trees (picture above). Why is it there? We have so many unanswered questions.
Another interesting aspect was that we went during Ramadan. That meant that pretty much everybody in the whole city was without food or drink from sunrise to sundown, and in that heat it was no surprise that there were people all over the city who just lay or sat in the shade, doing nothing. Coming from Stockholm where people are in a constant hurry, who run to not miss the train when the next one comes in two minutes, we reacted when we saw these people spending their time not doing anything in particular, but fasting in 35°C, goodness me I admire their strength. Also look at this Arabic stop sign below.
The garden is called Jardin Majorelle and is from the middle of the 1900s. It’s run by anon-profit organisation that uses the money they earn to support exhibitions, cultural education, scholarships for Moroccans studying abroad and social initiatives in the country. Good stuff basically. WhenI pay for the entrance the cashier leans forward and says: “You look like Taylor Swift.” I was really surprised. Not only because of the fact that I totally don’t look like Taylor Swift, but because I wouldn’t have expected people working at a garden in Morocco to be familiar with that part of pop-culture, but of course they would be. We live in a globalised world.
When we enter it is love at first sight. All the green trees, the blue details, the coloured pots, the ponds. There are thirty species of cactus and lots of palms and bamboo. The air is fresh and cool and it is calm and beautiful. We sit on a bench and just admire it for awhile. Then we take a walk through the garden, taking lots of photos of the garden and each other. There is a pond with frogs and turtles as well. After another moment of sitting on a bench, we walk around the garden one more time, this time without the cameras to just carpe diem.
Feeling content we walk back towards the Medina. We buy some oranges and chill at the hotel fora bit. We make a plan to go look at the Madrasa of Ben Youssef, the Quran School. With map in hand as true tourists we try to navigate through the labyrinth that is Marrakech. When we stop and look at our map a man approaches us. He says we’re headed the wrong way and points us in another direction. We thank him, because we don’t really know where we were. I feel a bit disappointed in my own ability to navigate. He doesn’t leave us alone though.He walks up to us and says he’ll show us the way. We follow at a safe distance, becoming more and more sceptical. It’s obvious he’s taking a crooked detour, going left and right here and there to make us completely disorientated. I realise I should have trusted my sense of direction more than this man, but now there is not much we can do. Suddenly we find ourselves at the gate in the wall that is right by our hotel. He tells us that the Madrasa is just down the road outside the wall and to the left. Then he asks us to pay for his service. The situation instantly gets kind of hilarious. His tactic of course was to take us to a place where he could say “straight on and to the left” so he could leave and be gone when we realised we had been fooled. But no. He has led us to the only gate we really know, and the Madrasa is not at all where he says. He won’t leave us alone though, asking for money. “Let’s go home.” I say, and we turnaround and start walking really fast. He follows but we go straight to the hotel and close the door in his face. I let out a loud, irritated sigh that echoes in the empty hall, and then laugh at myself. The hotel host is all sweet to us when we tell him what happened. “Oh, a false guide.” That’s a common thing apparently. He tells us not to be afraid and then gives us some mineral water.
I’m quite proud of how we handled the situation. Perhaps it was stupid to follow him in the first place, but we kept cool and solved the problem in a good way.I never felt scared or like I didn’t have control on the situation. You might think that this incident felt like a waste of time, but I think we were strengthened by it. We learned what people can do, but we also learned that we are freaking strong and clever and can handle stuff that comes in our way.Perhaps this protected us from future crises.
Tired of not being able to find our way we take a walk towards the square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, following the outside of the wall. We pass a fruit market on the street and some pretty houses on the way.
Another unanswered question: What are these towers (picture above)? They don’t seem to have any apparent function and there is nothing describing its origin or anything. What.
WELL ACTUALLY. With a little help from myfriend Google I have learnt the following: Marrakech has seven patron saints.They were all religious figures, living, doing good deeds between the 11thand 16th century. Their tombs are all in the Medina and thereforethe city is a pilgrimage destination. Ben Youssef, the one with the Madrasa, isone of the seven. Anyhow, these towers were built in 2005 as a monument in thememory of the seven saints.Being in a different country, and being easily impressed as the both of us are, almost everything is interesting. For example I photograph the pavement tiles, because they are all decorative and pretty.
This, the motive of the pictures below, was the most important mosque. I was expecting the mosques to have domes like they do in many other countries, but in Marrakech and the surrounding area they all had this shape. At all square tower with a smaller cube over it, and with the three or four balls on top. As with a lot of the architecture they had plain facades, but then lots of delicate decorations. This, the Koutoubia mosque was in my opinion the prettiest.
Dinnertime approaches just as we reach Jemaa el-Fnaa. Right in front of us there is an eating-place out in the open air. There are plastic chairs and tables, and all the people sitting there are Moroccan. The food is cooked on a movable hot stove. This feels really authentic. This is not some haven for tourists; this is just a place people of Marrakech come to have a bit of food.We ask them what the food is, what it costs and whether it’s meat-free. The cooking method looks hygienic. We get the typical iftar food – iftar being the meal that breaks the fast. They serve us harira soup, a traditional lentil soup, delicious stuffed bread, fried vegetables, tea, and some sweet thing for dessert. All this for 20 dh (20 kr). I’m so happy. We are participating in instead of just observing the culture. This is exactly what I look for when I travel. Today we have enough energy to appreciate that we actually are here together experiencing this foreign country.
After this lovely meal we feel ready to hit the souks and get some bargaining going. The market definitely comes to life more at night during Ramadan. Now it isn’t just tired salesmen and tourist. Now the streets are full, and there is music in the square and wagons with people selling orange juice. Passing the henna ladies we keep our hands tucked in and walk quickly.
We look at both what we want, and what we definitely don’t want, like everything in a shop we found that was completely stuffed with what we in Swedish would call krimskrams. Useless decorations. This night, as opposed to our first night, we feel more confident at the market. We have a larger understanding of how it works and we get good bargains on trousers and various gifts. It kind of becomes a fun game after a while. We also come up with ways of avoiding salesmen, like “only understanding Swedish”. We share a glass of fresh orange juice and made our way back, content. Alva wants to sew up a pair of new trousers that are too long, and we find a tailor who’s sewing in an open room on our home street. He doesn’t speak any English at all, but through goodwill and made-up sign language Alva leaves the place with a needle and thread.A group of guys sitting on the street shouts BOO as we pass and I make an embarrassingly squeamish screech. They thought it was hilarious. I did too once my heart rate was back to normal. This whole night was just really fun.
One thing that we noticed early on was the great number of cats on the streets. It took all our willpower to resist cuddling with them because they were adorable, but possibly had rabies or whatever. They were everywhere, and we found some of them sleeping in the funniest places. Here’s a little collage of cat pictures. Enjoy.
After another lovely hotel breakfast we make plans for the day. The plan is to see some of the sites we have heard are nice, i.e. go to the Madrasa, (only following the map this time) possibly look at the museum that is located right next to it and then continue on by two palaces further down. Our day ended up consisting of something different, but it my opinion, we were better off like that.Alva wants to return the needle she was given, since a needle is probably more precious here than at home, but when she tries to give it back to the man he instead starts to gather up a spools of thread and gives to her as a bonus gift. She tries to refuse, but he won’t let her. I hope he feels he gets something out of helping out. We make our way in the direction of the Madrasa, going the other direction from the hotel than when going to the souk or the square.The streets between our hotel and our destination are beyond where tourists usually wander. We are the only non-Moroccans around and people look a bit confused as to why we are there. We go through a courtyard next to something that we guess is a mosque, because it is beautifully decorated. It’s a shame non-Muslims are not allowed inside their mosques, because from what I’ve heard they’re fantastic. In my quest to find out about the seven towers I also found pictures of the courtyard we went through. The building isa holy place, honouring one of the saints, Sidi Bel Abbes.
Then we walk through what I suppose is just a regular street of the Medina, with people working, minding their own business and selling things people actually need, not the krimskrams that is sold to tourists in Jemaa el-Fnaa. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable by taking pictures of them, but then I find it all so cool, so I walk the streets with the camera at my waist, snapping pictures as discretely as you can with a massive camera.
I thought this walk was great. You can spend money going to museums or doing fancy activities, but it’s doing this, just walking through the streets, that you can see reality, that you can learn so,so much. What we saw made me really confused. The mosque was beautiful and decorated, but a lot of the houses were run down. Everything looked old and not very well cared for. It felt a bit like travelling in time. Using donkeys to pull carts was very common. We saw a blacksmith working, a man sharpening his knives on a grindstone, people repairing a house with timber scaffolds, people selling leather and handmade shoes. At the same time there were motorbikes going by, televisions being sold (the thick kind though), and there were fast food places. Some people were dressed as if they belonged to the middle ages,some in traditional Moroccan clothes, and some with a more western style. I tried to make sense of how developed the area was, and figure out how the lives of the people we passed must be. I can’t really describe the feeling. The area,the people, the scenes we witnessed were like things I’ve seen on the news orin films, but there I was in the middle of it. It was for real; an actual place with people walking right past me whose reality was exactly this. And at the same time as I was present I still felt like an observer, almost as if I was watching a film, only that the screen had been removed.
The closer we get to the touristy area the more there are people with false intentions. It’s a bit sad to see what tourism does to people. To some the foreigners probably look like a walking sack of money, and when times are rough there’s no wonder some take advantage of it. People start shouting: “The square is that way!” to us, as if all tourists just want to hang out on the square all day, and Alva and I are doing our own thing, going by our own plans.Even though we decline every offer of special guiding a man joins us, telling us about the city and Ramadan. We try to shake him off over and over, saying that we know where we’re going, but he keeps going with us saying “Are you afraid? Do you have anything against Moroccan people?” He tries to convince us to go look at another site instead of the Madrasa. I’m guessing he has some friends working there that he wants to bring customers to. It’s irritating,because even if we know exactly what he was doing we can’t do much about it. He won’t leave. He also invites us to his house for tea. Alva and I give each other a look of understanding and when we see a large sign for the museum ofMarrakech we thank the man and quickly take a left turn down the street. The man shouts after us that he was expecting a little gift from us, a little payment for his service, but we disappear as fast as possible. Finally we are at the Madrasa of Ben Youssef. Being a bit tired we just look at it, read a sign with information about it, say: “That’s nice” and carry on. The museum is expensive, so we decide to go and chill up at a nice roof terrace.
We eat, rest our legs and enjoy the view for a bit. Today it’s actually cloudy and a bit chilly, only about 27°C. From the mosques we hear people calling our in loudspeakers for prayer. That happens pretty often. People working at for example the restaurants don’t take a prayer break, at least not all at the same time, but I have seen a person temporarily closing his shop to pray.Tired of getting lost and having people trying to be our guides we lookup the way to the palaces on Google maps and screenshot every little turn on the not at all grid-like street system. On the way we pass some shops and quite a few people point us in the direction of the square, but we decline their kindoffers. Palais de la Bahia is closed when we reach it, but it’s rather expensive anyway. Instead we carryon downtown passing though Jemaa el-Fnaa. We enter a shop to avoid the sun,which has returned. They sell spices, soaps and argan oil. Now we learn what this argan is as well. They have laid out a demonstration of the making. There is a tree called the argan tree that has fruits, stone fruit. Inside the stone there is a seed that looks almost like an almond. Those seeds are then ground and oil is made out of them, as they are, or roasted. It’s interesting to see,and the oil made on roasted argan seeds smells really nice. There’s a woman working here, and she shows us the rest of the shop. They have similar things as in the one we were brought to the first day: spices, perfumes, soaps, dried this and that, and pigment for making paint, that looks like the paint of Jardin Majorelle.
We keep walking and get to the Jewish quarters. There is a synagogue and some souk streets belonging to the Jewish community. I didn’t expect to see that. Time for some demographics about Morocco.
Muslims 98,7 %, Christians 1,1 %, Jews 0,2 %
Arab 75 %, Berber 20 %, other 5 %
Children who go to primary school
Children who go to high school
We don't know where we’re going and passing some tourists Alva asks “Do you have any idea where we are at all?” They do, and we’re on a street leading to the wall. Exiting the Medina we continue on through blocks of houses, less touched by tourism.
We sit downon a bench for some time to reflect, and to eat some oranges. The only thing wedo is sit and watch people, but it’s so interesting. This area seems to be,like the streets we saw in the morning, relatively primitive and run down. Thedonkeys and people sitting here and there don’t surprise us anymore. Somethingelse happens though. While we sit and eat our oranges we see a group ofchildren on the other side of the street. They look at each other and starttalking to each other, looking over to us. We’ve become used to being lookedat, and don’t react much. But they stop after a while and stand for a long timeconferring. Then they come up to us, their hand reached out, looking at ouroranges. We don’t have much left, but we give them what we have - a few piecesper child - and they run off.
It hit me how absurd it isthat a couple of pieces of orange make enough difference for them to make themdare approach us as they did. I felt humbled. We talked about our privilegedlives, our petty problems, and how everything is distributed so askew in theworld. We can just go and buy some oranges just because we feel like it, or buya meal, or unnecessary krimskrams without having to think much. When rich peoplein the western world say they can’t afford something, what they really mean is“I can’t afford this, on top of all the other things I want”, not “I actuallydon’t have sufficient money to buy the basic necessities.” I don’t know how thesituation was for these children, but in any case it got me thinking, a lot. Wetalked about the governments and everything that should be done but isn’t.
A bit downthe other side of the street and group of boys come, and put up nets on thefootball posts. After a while more boys arrive, wearing football clothes.
One thing that we noticed very much during thistrip was that football is really big and important in the world. My outlook onthe sport has been that it’s just a sport, whose professional players aregrossly overpaid, but we realised that it’s more than that. Something thatdemonstrated how important football was the clothes of the boys playing by thestreet. They might be from another area where people have more money, but thiscity in general doesn’t seem to be filled with very rich people, and yet theyhad spent money on buying the shirts and shorts, and knee-high socks that you wouldn’tneed in this hot country except for football. The thing with football is thatanybody can play, as long as you have a ball basically. We went through a courtyardin the morning where they had drawn two goals on the walls on opposing sides.It’s actually cool that people all over the world, in different countries,different social classes, are playing the same sport. And because it is alsoplayed on a professional level it can probably lift young football players’self-esteem, just knowing they share something with this great idol. (Thoughonce again I wonder: where are the girls?) As I mentioned earlier, when we saidwe are Swedes, everybody started talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A woman wetalked to told us she had four sisters and four brothers. “Including ourparents we are a football team” she said. Not “we are eleven people”, but “weare a football team”. Footballkept popping up here and there and everywhere. In a way it’s beautiful. Thissport is bringing the whole world together. I still think that the salaries offootball players are insanely high, but I have started to see that their impacton people is bigger than I had previously thought.
We don’t know where we are, but we’re next to a wall, and we think: “Wellthere can’t be that many city walls right? If we just follow that wall we’llget to somewhere we know eventually”. We look at the map and navigate what sideof the wall we should be with the sun, that one of us, (I’m not pointing anyfingers) says sets in the east. And we carry on. Along this wall we see moresides of Marrakech. We notice thegaps in life standard. There’s a playground where there’s nothing left. Onlyparts of the chains of the swings are hanging from the frame. The children sitin the sand playing with blocks of stone. Just a few hundred meters away thereis a super nice playground with colourful slides and a trampoline and kid-sizedplastic cars and everything. Seeing that is almost more strange than thinkingabout how it is back home, because it makes me wonder what it is that keeps thechildren with the stones from going to the other playground. Do they not feellike they belong, or are they not allowed to, or is this not as big of an issuefor them? The houses by this road look better looked-after than the areas fromearlier in the day.
We also see a telephone mast, disguised as a palm tree.
A man stops us, as we’re about to reach a bend in the road. He tells us we are in an area that isn’t for tourists, and that our road leads to a forest. I show him our map and ask him where we are. He looks at the map looking at the landmarks on it and pointing here and there, mumbling. At first it made me sceptical, but then I realised he wasn’t trying to trick us.He just had no idea where we were on that map, but was too polite to admit it.I also realised that he might not have been as familiar with maps as we are. For us it’s such a natural way of thinking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people in Marrakech just know their way around based on an ”inner map”, like how you find your way around home, and perhaps have never even had a proper look at a city map. I see it in his eyes. He has no idea, so we find wifi at a café. Google maps is our friend. Walking to the Medina would take… 1 h 20 min.What the. Tired and hungry, we’re not up for that, so we take a taxi. The driver tells us he just moved here from Agadir, and Alva has to guide him with the map in her phone.
Not motivated enough to find a fancy restaurant, we just order some couscous at a small place. The food isn’t exciting, but at the table next to us there is an American guy who starts talking to us. He is originally from Bosnia, (and he points out that Zlatan’s family is also from Bosnia) but he has been living in the US for a long time. Now he is here in Morocco to direct a film. You know, as people do. We share things that have been surprising or strange in Marrakech. He says he’s enjoying himself, but I wonder if he’ll says the same thing in a couple of weeks when it’s over 40°C. Then a bearded man sits down next to Alva and asks her if he can drink from her glass of water. She says no and then we kind of pretend not to understand English, and then the American guy talk to us again and things get awkward. After dinner, we go home, getting hyped up about what's in store for tomorrow.
Plans forthe next two days: Trip to the Zagora desert, including a long ride in a minibus per day through the Atlas Mountains via Ouarzazate, riding camels and sleeping in the desert.
The bus is supposed to pick us up at 7:15, so we have set the alarm for 6:00. Breakfast is as beautifully prepared for us as every day, because the hostess asked us the day before when we leave. She also gives us a bracelet each, with a handsymbol, hamsa, which we have seen in the souk. It is supposed to protect you from the evil eye, from illness and bad luck. After three days of taking great care of us they also bring us gifts. So sweet of them. A souvenir like that means so much more than the ones you buy for yourself. Another cute thing: Losra, in Riad Losra, means family.
They let us leave our suitcases there until we return, and we head out to the minibus. Then the other tourists who are coming on the trip arrive. There’s a couple from New Zealand, and a group of 12 very loud Americans, slightly older than us. We sit on the seats in front of the back row and they are all around, shouting to each other, laughing talking. We feel like we have just become part of an American school trip, without ever signing up for it. Alva walks up to the front and asks the girls sitting there if they would like to sit back with their friends,but everybody just laughs and says: “They just don’t want to sit with us haha”.She sits down and we think of the fact that we’re sharing this minibus for 8hours today, 8 hours tomorrow. Especially since they play “Would you rather…”the first hour or so. We have fun though, analysing for example how their volume of speech is so much louder than ours and discuss whether or not that isa national characteristic for our separate countries.
It's also fun to look out of the windows. At first we thought the 8 hours would just feel like transportation, but it really doesn’t. We pass lots of villages, some abandoned and some inhabited. It’s hard to understand that there are actually people living here, in such a different way than I am used to. How can these tiny villages function? A few of the houses have metal poles sticking up around the frame as if they’re planning to build another floor at some point, but are in no hurry, which is obvious as the houses themselves aren’t exactly new. There are men with ankle-long shirts and sunhats that just complete the stereotype image of a rural area. We drive through the mountains and there are lots of things growing, and donkeys and women carrying bales of grass that have been gathered from the fields.
We make a stop at a lookout place. The view is fantastic. We look out on a large area of sandy hills, green trees, scattered houses and huge mountains. The mountains have a red colour I haven’t seen mountains have before. It’s similar to the colour of all the houses. I suspect a link.
The busstops again after a while for us to look at a different view. We are further up into the mountains. They are high and grey and nothing grows, except for a trail of trees in the valley that follows the shape of a river that I suppose was once there. We see a lot of meandering dried up riverbeds. It’s crazy to think that it’s been hot enough to dry an entire river. The roads up here are crooked, and bumpy at places. We see a lot of construction workers along the road, and the guide tells us they are improving the roads. Good idea. I’m impressed they are as good as they are though, seeing as this is high up in the mountains. Sometime during this bus ride we also start talking to the Americans.They are a group of people from California who study in Germany. We have so much fun. They give us new American names, because apparently Alva is difficult to pronounce. To them we’re Ally and Susy. We give them Swedish names, just for the fun of it. They ask questions about us and about Sweden, and for some reason they find everything we say amusing. A few times they read things into what I say and make fun of it, and I realise that it doesn’t matter what picture they get of who I am, because we’re just hanging out for two days of our lives, and laughing at your own expense is hilarious and so, so releasing.
We make a stop in Ouarzazate (see the map, halfway on our route), at Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. A guide in a straw hat shows us this group of buildings, towers and walls that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apparently there are still some Berber families living here. He tells us that many films have been shot here,including The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia and Game of Thrones (see the picture of Khaleesi below) and as we pass a large gate he says: “That one isn’t real, that was just built asprops”.
We have lunch (tajine or couscous, what else) and then continue with the minibus. We keep discussing differences between Sweden and USA. We tell them about traditions,(they insist on us singing a Lucia song when we tell them about our Lucia celebrations) and about ourselves, and we dare to ask them about how much of prejudice against USA is true, and ask their opinions on the political situation. It results in interesting and funny conversations.
One time when we've stopped to buy water a boy tries to give me something, but I say no thank you, thinking he's selling, but he shakes his head and insists on giving it to me. He has woven a little animal out of grass, gives it to me, smiles and walks away.
The minibus comes to a halt, and looking out the window we see why. We have reached the Zagora desert, and on the other side of the road there are camels. There are Berber men in turbans that help us get up on the camels, to sit on the saddles made out of thick blankets. At first they think they don’t have enough camels, and ask me to share with Alva, but then I get another one. Now at least we have a picture of the two of us on a camel. Just look at us now 12-year-old Alva and Susanna.
We’re split into two caravans, Alva in the first, I in the second. The rows of camels are led by a Berber man and a young boy. One of the Americans start singing “Get low” by Lil Jon and the Berber joins in. Once again I’m surprised by how much the people living in the middle of nowhere know of the outside world. Riding a camel is much more bumpy than riding a horse, but it’s fun.
We ride through the desert in the sunset, and for the first time that day it’s completely quiet. On the right there are brown, rocky mountains and a full moon. On the left there is a magnificent sunset over the faded silhouettes of the mountains. In between there is desert. Desert as far as you can see.
After a while the man stops us. He takes out a packet from a pocket in the saddle blanket. He drinks some milk and has something to eat. I look to my left and understand what’s going on. The sun has set, and he is allowed to break the fast. Then he turns to the east and starts to pray, out loud, into the quiet desert. I appreciate that he doesn’t let the convenience of tourist come in the way of how he wants to practice his religion. It’s a beautiful atmosphere around it, and I a happy to have witnessed it. At first the desert is barren land, gravel and sand, but as we approach our camp, it’s more like sand dune-desert.There’s just a tiny bit of light left when we reach the camp.
Alva and I feel a need to go aside, have some time for reflection, because as fun as it is to be on the highest energy level, having FUN, you can’t go to a desert without having a calm moment where you just experience the fact that you are right there, right now. We walk over to the sand dunes behind the huts where we’re going to sleep. The moon is bright, the sand is soft under our feet and it’s quiet and calm. We stand there, and sing “Irish blessing” in harmonies, just because the melody fits the atmosphere. It’s kind of a magical moment. Then we run around on the sand dunes like little children, dancing around, trying to do yoga poses without falling in the unstable sand. I don’t think I have ever felt as stress relieved and relaxed as here in the desert with Alva.
Dinner is served, but 1. It’s tajine, and 2. There’s chicken in it. We ask if there is any vegetarian option, but they say that we should have ordered that in advance. We totally did order that in advance. Anyway, there is bread, salad,some vegetables that aren’t completely mixed together with meat, and delicious watermelon. After dinner they offer some entertainment in form of Berber music.They play drums and sing. The beats are similar to what was played when Alva and I learnt a kind of African dance, years ago, and we cannot resist getting up to dance. It’s so much fun. I love dancing, and dancing an African dance in a North African desert to actual African music is something I’ve never thought I would do. The Americans are impressed also by the fact that we just happen to know a synchronised dance to this kind of music. Then the dance party continues with limbo, and everybody joins in. We have an amazing time.
Not that it's important, but Alva and I won.
We sit on the sand dunes and talk with the Americans. I put my feet into the deeper layers of the sand, where the heat of the sun hasn’t yet cooled. I have heard that it’s super cold in deserts at night. It isn’t, but it isn’t unbearably hotas in the day. It’s that perfect temperature where it’s neither hot nor cold, it just is. The Americans drop off, and a Berber man joins us instead. We ask him about where he lives, and he tells us about his life. He lives in the desert,in the actual desert, with his camels. The worst part about living in the desert, he says, is the weather, when it gets superhot or when there are sandstorms. The turbans are used for sandstorm protection by the way. We tell him that we get temperatures like-20°C in the winters in Sweden, and he says that sounds nice. We realise that this man has probably never been freezing cold in his life, and to him it’s a linear correlation: the colder, the more pleasant. Little does he know.
He hasworked with tourism for five years, bringing his camels to be ridden. Betweenthe tourist treks he takes the camels to somewhere they can eat flowers. We’vebeen worried about how the camels would be treated, because we’ve heardhorrible stories about what happens to elephants in Thailand etc, but hearinghim speak about their relationship to the camels I feel reassured that they’reokay. We ask what he did before. The usual, he says, you know herding sheep,and selling them down in town, to get money to buy food, that’s delivered bythe big truck. He tells us this as if he’s expecting this to be as normal forus as it is for him. The feminists in us cannot resist. We ask him: “What aboutthe women? What do they do?” “They’re in the tents, making food, makingclothes, looking after the children.” “Can they go out?” “Why would they goout? There’s just desert.” Valid point. It gives perspective though. Genderroles Zagora desert: Men take care of camels and sheep. Women take care of foodand children. Does this even exist? He says he’s never been to school. Whywould he, he says. He learned everything he needed from the people he livedwith. It hits me that the boy who led the caravan may be on the same path inlife as the others. That he perhaps doesn’t go to school, and learns how to dothese tourists trips from the others. Alva looks at her watch, and the mansays, dead serious, “Don’t look at that. There is no time in the desert”.
A younger Berberjoins us. He sits down next to me and basically starts talking to me about hislife. He’s 24 and lives in the desert with a few families. He likes it. Theytell lots of stories and go about their business. He tells me about the timeshe’s been to Marrakech, and says that the noisiness, and the pushy salesmenmade the whole experience very unpleasant for him. Cities are not for him. Canyou imagine the feeling of coming to a city full of shouting, beeping, people,motorbikes, markets, when your whole world is sand and quiet? He’s been toschool for a total of one week in his life. He left because they spoke Arabic,and he didn’t. He works with tourism now, as a cook, and has learnt to speakEnglish, and a few other languages, just through talking to tourists. I findthis hard to understand. In my view of the world you learn things from school,courses, teachers. But here he was, fluent in English without having had asingle lesson. I’m terribly impressed. I ask him about the future, and he saysyou can never know what’s in store for tomorrow. You have to go day by day, andhe’ll only work with tourism as long as he thinks it’s fun, and then he’ll see.He shows me the constellations in the stars, which are tilted compared to whatthey look like seen from Sweden. I know that happens when you go south, butseeing that reminds me again of the fact that I am in a totally different partof the world.
We thinkthat since he has never left Morocco it might be interesting for him to seewhat Sweden’s like, and we show him photos of lakes and flowers and late nightswhere the sun is up, on Alva’s camera. Then he picks up his mobile from apocket and says he’ll show us some pictures. He can’t unlock it, but I show offmy technical skills (“Have you tried turning it off and restarting it?”) andwe’re in. He shows us pictures of his family, of when they’re moving theircamel caravan, and pictures from when he went sand skiing.
Alva goesto bed, but I have to stay up for a bit longer and just sit and try tocomprehend. I am here, sitting in the sand in the Moroccan desert, in thestarry, moonlit night, with my feet in the soft, warm sand, as a cool breezebrushes past. Ten meters away from our huts around forty camels are resting onthe sand. I just talked to a guy, one year older than my oldest brother, whoselife is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced, from everything Ithought I knew about the world. Is this for real? Is this 2016? They liverather primitively here with their camels, but they have phones and betterreception than many Swedish small-towns. I mean I understand that it’s a necessitynowadays, and Alva pointed out that more people have access to mobiles thantoilets. I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down, or at leastbeen given a good shake. This desert trip, that I thought would be very touristy,gave so so much more insight into the Berber culture than what I’d expected.
My head is buzzing with new impressions, and I kind of feel like sitting up all night looking at the stars in the quiet, feeling, thinking, experiencing. But they’re waking us up at 5.30, and I don’t want to be dead tomorrow, so I go to bed. Unforgettable night.
There’s a loud noise of someone rattling the lock on the door. I look at my phone. 5:00. Great. We decide that sleep is better than sunrise and snooze for half an hour, but then they come, making a noise again. Up, up, breakfast quickly, yalla yalla, let’s go.
This is the hut we have slept in.
We mount the camels and ride back. This camel is even bumpier than myprevious one. The long shadows from the morning sun trot along on the sand nextto our caravan and I look all around to take in the last desert moments. Lotsof group photos are taken of the Americans, the camels and us. Touristy as weare.
Now what remains is an 8-hour bus ride. The return trip contains a lotof winding roads, temperatures of 37-39°C in the bus and long drives betweenstops. (It takes a while before someone discovers you can open a window in theceiling to let some air in, but that dramatically heightens my mood.) Alva getsa bit car sick, but I’m distracted enough by the conversations with the othersthat I don’t think much of the uneven roads. We pass amazing views of nature.High mountains of different kinds and palm tree forests, where we see datesgrowing. At times it’s quite awful. At first it’s hot like a sauna and we haveno water left, and after we’ve stopped to buy some I drink too much and sit anddesperately hope we’ll pass a place with toilets soon. We ask the driver tostop, and now at least I can say that I’ve peed somewhere in the middle ofnowhere in the Atlas Mountains.
The guidetells us we’re going to a museum to look at traditional carpets, but we soonunderstand that he’s brought us to a carpet shop. Probably the friend systemagain, or they have some sort of deal where the guide’s part is to bring thetourists. The shop owners have a short presentation of a few of their carpets,and then they go up to us, individually and ask which we like the most, andthey’ll give us a good price. We try to tell him that 1. We can’t afford it. 2.We can’t fit a room-sized carpet in our luggage. 3. We don’t stand for the family’scarpet purchases. 4. If it’s not flying, I ain’t buying.
The nextstop is a super expensive restaurant. I’m upset, because we are in the busdriver’s power. He decides where we go, and we have no say. I’ve heard thoseguides often have agreements with places; like that he could get a free meal ifhe brings his tourists there. I’m probably disproportionately upset about thisunreasonable injustice, but I think it might be because of the heat. The Americansare humoured by my inability to function in hot weather, but when the air isabove body temperature even the breeze is hot, the shade is hot. That doesn’thappen in Sweden. We have really interesting discussions at lunch though, withthree of the Americans who have Mexican parents, and they tell us about valuesand habits, politics and people, in Mexico. Later on the minibus we get to hearstories about what it can like being homosexual in California. I’ve learntlots. We wanted to learn about Moroccan Arabic and Berber culture, and got Americanand Mexican culture into the bargain.
It’s both apity and a relief when the minibus arrives in Marrakech. Hanging out with thegroup has been great fun, but we are so ready to leave this hot vehicle. Wepick up our luggage from Riad Losra and head out to get a taxi to our nextdestination. Our last days we’re staying with a woman we’ve found on couchsurfing.
Ever heard of couch surfing? There’s a sitewhere you can find people who offer travellers to come live at their houses forfree. We thought this would be a great way to reduce the cost, and to see somereal culture, in a real home. We contacted a woman called Fedoua in preparationfor the trip. She had good references and seemed nice. We didn’t at all knowwhat to expect. What I found interesting was that everybody we met in Moroccoknew of couch surfing. When we’ve told Swedes a lot of people haven’t heard ofit, and are pretty sceptical when they hear the concept. “What do they get outof it?” But in Morocco, when we were asked if we lived at a hotel and said no,their second guess was “Couch surfing?” And that goes for people inside andoutside of the Medina, and for Berbers. Apparently it’s more of an establishedthing to do there.
She lives a 20-minute car ride away from the Medina, in a neighbourhoodwhere tourists hardly ever come. She and her 1,5-year old daughter meet up withus where the taxi drops us off and shows the way to her home. We get someinevitable looks from passers-by, and several of them welcome us to Morocco.The tone here is more genuinely friendly than in the Medina. The area consistsof apartment buildings with the good old peach-coloured facades. Fedoua unlocksa doorway, which leads to the neighbours’ staircase and Fedoua’s front door,and then we enter her apartment. I must say I’m a little surprised, even thoughI think I enter without expectations. Perhaps the hotel spoilt us. There arethree rooms and a kitchen. A bedroom for Fedoua, her husband and their daughter.A living/dining room, which is a small room with couches along the walls,surrounding a table and facing a thick TV.
A guest room, containing two beds and a chest of drawers.
.A kitchen with a sink, a gas-stove, a fridge and a small table.
A one square meter bathroom with a hole in the floor to the drain and a shower on the wall. Make the best of it.
Then there’s a doorframe that leads to a room without a roof that is used kind of like a tiny courtyard where they hang clothes on a string.
The hostessis a teacher and the husband is an electrician. I don’t know enough about Morocco,but I would assume that to mean they are about average, class wise, which makeseverything I thought about the other day come back even clearer to me. The standardof this house is so different from what a teacher and electrician would haveback home. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about their home, it wasjust much simpler than I’d expected, and that makes me wonder what the homes ofthe people on the streets of the Medina look like.
Fedouaserves us iftar. She calls it breakfast in English, which I find funny, becausethat’s just what it is, breaking the fast, but it sounds odd. It isn’tcouscous. She’s made different kinds of bread and pancake-like things and a ricedish. The TV is on all the time, showing children’s programmes with educationalsongs in Arabic that teach for example the Arabic alphabet, and that it’s notscary to go to the hairdressers. They also watch Moroccan reality shows andseries. To our dismay we find that the people on TV look nothing like thepeople we’ve met. They look more western, and I wonder if that is the ideal inthe television business. At around 19:40, or more accurately, at sunset, thetelevision programmes are interrupted by a call to prayer with a montage ofpictures of a mosque and the sun setting. After this we start eating, and the Moroccantalk show continues.
We want totell our parents we are alive and well, and go to a café that has wifi. Weorder some tea, but don’t drink it. They give us some water, but Alva tastes itand says it tastes of chlorine, and we don’t touch it fearing that it might betap water. After a while of mutual silence and quenching of wifi-thirst we headback. A guy, slightly older than us, tells us to follow him, that he’ll show usthe way home. We’re smart enough to be a little sceptical to the offer. But hesays our host told him to go find us, because she was worried about us. Itsounds like a lie that would be difficult to come up with out of the blue, butbecause of previous experiences we are very cautious. We know our way home, andwe walk back the way we came, with the guy a few steps in front of us, laughingat our hesitation. At the door Fedoua greets him with a hug and he picks up thechild and plays around with her. We relax, and feel a bit foolish for havingbeen as suspicious towards him as we had, but better that way than theopposite, right? The desert trip has left us completely exhausted and we falldown on our beds. I fell asleep instantly.
We have no plans for the day, and that’s lucky, because then we would’ve had to cancel them. I have slept like a cradled baby, but Alva isn’t feeling at all well. It’s probably a combination of
- Little sleep
- Much activity
- Hot weather
- Not enough water
- Too much sun
- Bus ride on bumpy, winding roads
- Possibly to us unfamiliar bacteria
Come tothink of it I would be surprised if both of us made it through without gettinga little sick. Fedoua makes some herbal tea for Alva, and I give her some magicget-well pill we have brought from back home.
While Alvarests I join Fedoua as she goes to the local souk. This is no spectacle fortourists, this is where regular people go to buy what they need, and thereforeI don’t bring my camera. According to Fedoua you can find everything you needhere. It’s an outdoor market with lots of stands, where they sell vegetables,grains, bread, meat and fish, clothes, toiletries, kitchen tools, toys, everything.Something I’ve noticed before, but not put much thought into, is the fact thatthey hardly have any shops. It’s not like in Sweden, where sometimes you chooseto buy fruit at a market instead of in the shop. Here the market is where yougo; It’s the standard. The only shops we’ve seen are pharmacies and a phoneshop. Well, this applies to this area and the Medina. We’ve passed a road withfancy houses and shops. Though I’m guessing that was mostly tourist oriented.People at the souk are friendly - either not giving me much attention, or elsesmiling or asking Fedoua in Arabic where I come from. Fedoua buys some fruitand some mint. (Please don’t make us more mint tea.)
I decide toask her a few questions about their culture and her life here. She doesn’t weara hijab, and I can’t resist asking her about what people’s view on that is. Shetells me that it’s quite common that a husband tells his wife when they decideto get married that he wants her to wear a hijab, or sometimes even not towork. In some families girls start to cover their hair when they’re twelve, butFedoua’s parents never asked her to do it. Then she worked with tourism, andthere they didn’t want people to wear hijab apparently. It was never a naturalthing for her, so when her husband asked her to put on a hijab she said no. “Idon’t ask him to wear anything special, so why would he ask that of me?” Herhusband is okay with her choice, but his family doesn’t even speak to herbecause of it. At the souk I didn’t see anybody else without hijab, wearingt-shirt and trousers like Fedoua, and I can imagine people having opinionsabout that. I admire her strength.
When wecome back Alva is a bit better. Either the tea or the pills seems to have been effective.We decide to go out and look for an ATM, and wifi to look up things and planwhat we want to do tomorrow. There is an ATM, but it only has French and Arabicinstructions, and we don’t want to risk pressing a “give all your money to thisMoroccan bank”-button. There’s a café close-by, and we enter and ask if theyhave wifi. The owner tries to communicate with us in Italian, but we can’t domuch more than stand there and look confused. He gives us the password and wesit down. He keeps asking us things for a while, and then leaves us alone,seeming irritated. Minutes later a woman enters the café and walks up to us.The man has called her to come and help out, because she knows English. Shesays he’s worried we’re lost, and asks if we’re okay. I find this very sweet.Not only did he care about whether we were alright, but also made an effort tohelp us even though we didn’t ask for it, and called for an English speakingperson. In Sweden, if a foreign person came like this, I feel like the ownerwould just give the password and then leave the person alone, not wanting todisturb.
The womansits down at our table and starts to talk to us. Her name is Khadidja and she’sreally nice. She has studied English in school, because she really likes thelanguage. Her life is quite different from what we’ve heard so far. She used tobe married to a man from Pakistan, living in the UK, who she met online. Butthey got a divorce after a year, because it wasn’t really working out, and shefelt like it would be better for her to separate. We ask what people thought ofthat, and she says that both online dating and divorce are taboo here, butpeople are going to talk, whatever you do. Why not follow your own intuition,because you know more about your own life than the others do. Another strongwoman, doing what’s best for her. It’s so inspiring. She says women have to bestrong in order to not be trampled down by the patriarchy. She says that if youhave an education, a job and are financially independent, it’s much easier tobe independent and go by your own will.
She worksas an engineer, which means she’s well educated and probably has more financialstability than the average Moroccan. It’s a male dominated profession, even inSweden, and I know I’m being prejudiced but I wasn’t expecting to meet a femaleengineer here, at least not in this area at a random café. Where she works 9out of 24 are women, and she says that times are changing and society isbecoming more equal. She admits there are equality issues here but says that atleast it’s not like in Saudi Arabia. There the women are not allowed to gooutside alone, to work where they want, or even drive a car. And they areforced to wear hijab or niqab, to cover their hair and body. It’s interestinghow everybody has different reference points, how there’s always a worseexample. From our point of view Morocco is far from equal, but Khadidja’s pointof view is “Well, it’s not as bad as Saudi Arabia”.
Speaking ofdress codes, Khadidja wears hijab, and we ask about her thoughts on thesubject. She says it’s her choice entirely. A few years ago she didn’t, butthen she felt that she wanted to start taking her religion more seriously, andstarted wearing it. At home she takes it off, and also at parties, likeweddings. I guess letting your hair down is a way of dressing up. She gets outher mobile phone and shows us pictures of her without the hijab - at hersister’s wedding, and selfies of her at home wearing a regular tank top. Shedoesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal at all, which of course it shouldn’t be.
Then shetells us more about Ramadan. The boys start participating from the age of 12,and the girls from when she gets her first period. She looks at our bottle ofwater and says it’s really tempting. During Ramadan you’re supposed to fast,unless you’re sick, have recently given birth or are on your period. She tellsus she’s “on her cycle”, but still she doesn’t want to drink in public, becausethen people will know. She’s very open about everything, about things that seemto be taboo, like her divorce, the online dating, possibly this period thing aswell, and it feels like she finds it liberating to talk to us, because sheknows that we, as European girls, will not judge her by what she tells us. Ihope she gets as much out of talking to us for this reason, as we get out ofhearing all she tells us about.
Thefive-times-a-day prayers are optional, and you don’t have to do them on theappointed time, but if you want to do them all you should do your prayersometime before the time of the next prayer. She says that when she ispunctual, and when she reads the Quran, she feels closer to God, and makes acomparison to how you feel more content with yourself, and in relation to yourboss when you do your job punctually and correctly, or like when you hand inyour essays in time. This is on a deeper level though.
Alva wants to go home and rest, and we do so. We lie in our room and talk about things we’ve seen or thought about, and just life and other kinds of nonsense. Youmna comes into our room and starts picking things out of Alva’s bag and examining them. She especially likes containers you can open, with screw tops for example. Emphasis on “you can open”. She tries over and over, gives it to Alva, stares intensely when Alva shows how to do it, as if trying to understand the mystery, and then keeps failing. It’s adorable.
Fedoua makes us food - the same as yesterday, but now with a fruit salad. All the fruit is peeled, which is a comforting sight. She asks if we want to go to the mall after breakfast (evening breakfast that is). Before we leave she puts on nicer clothes and make up. I wonder why. We’re just going to a mall.
We take ataxi - sharing with another person. They have this taxi car-pooling system atthis place. You point right if you’re going towards the Medina, and left ifyou’re going the other way, so that the drivers don’t have to stop and ask whenthey already have a person in the car. It’s clever.
We hop off by Menara Mall. I can hardly believe it. Such a distinctcontrast to what we’ve been seeing so far. The mall is enormous, new, fresh,with a courtyard with a large fountain putting on a show of splashing water andcoloured lights.
Insidethere are expensive shops selling clothes, make up and more. Everybody elsealso seems to have dressed up to come here. Is this a thing people do? Just goto the mall for the fun of being there, and dressing nicely to live up to thestandard of the environment?
There’s anopen area surrounded by benches, and there are two men sitting there performingwith Arabic music. One plays a drum, one an oud, and they sing really nicesongs. We sit down to listen for a while. They sing a song that they tell us isdedicated to people emigrating. I have heard European songs welcomingimmigrants, but I haven’t thought about that people would write songs at theother end, wishing them good luck on their journey to a hopefully betterfuture. Youmna shows off her greatest dance moves to the music. There are otherchildren dancing around, and parents filming or taking pictures. Again, is thissomething people do? Do they show people the pictures saying, “Look, we went tothe mall. It was great fun”?
We take theescalator to the second floor. This floor, “the children’s floor” is insane.It’s like a mini amusement park. There are pinball machines, carrousels, asmall free fall attraction, games and those things that you can sit on thatmove around if you insert a coin. There are blinking lights and beeping noises.Alva and I just stare at the whole spectacle. It’s hilarious and horrendous at thesame time. I almost find it provocative, thinking back to the children playingwith stone blocks. That was in this same city.
Fun fact:Nobody in Marrakech accepts credit cards. Cash only all the way. Even at thisfancy mall. If you need money there’s an ATM. With the option to have Englishinstructions. We take advantage of this rare opportunity.
Fedoua suggests we take a walk “in the park”. We don’t understand whatshe’s referring to, but follow her lead. She means the pedestrian avenuebetween the roads with passing traffic. There are some trees and people hangingout on the grass, so I guess it’s kind of a stretched out park.
Alongthis road there are huge buildings, not in the slightest run down. Fedoua tellsus they are all hotels. No Moroccans live in this area. This makes me feel evenworse about the mall. Is this how the government uses the money? Are theybuilding giant luxurious hotels instead of maintaining people’s homes, providingdental care, (It’s needed. Many had really bad teeth.) and promoting educationamong the poorer people? That’s probably not how the world works. I just have ahard time dealing with the fact that I can see that there are issues, that Ican’t do anything about.
Fedouashows us the train station, which is also a huge construction. It’s for thelong distance trains for the big cities: Rabat, Casablanca and Agadir. There’sa picture of a man in the entrance hall that I have seen here and there inrestaurants and such. I ask Fedoua about him. He’s the king. Inevitablefollow-up question: Wait how is this country run? She explains (and I’mparaphrasing): There is a parliament, a prime minister and a king. Theparliament and the prime minister are democratically elected, but the kinginherits the throne. The parliament and the prime minister do most of theactual political work, but in decision-making it is the king who has the finalword.
Perhaps that is the reason why things are notrunning as smoothly as they could. We all know how drawn out processes in ademocratic parliament can be, and imagine that after a decision has been made,this one person can just put his foot in the way, and it won’t go through.
Fedoua sayshe’s good. Apparently he travels around and helps people who ask. Somebody sheknows was having financial issues, and he helped him get a taxi driver’s licence,so that he could earn money, and he had sponsored some other person with anotherproblem. It must be a good way to keep the people happy. Having endless amountsof money, granting a few people their wishes like some seasonally unbound SantaClaus, giving yourself a good reputation and making people feel like you are aman of the people. Seriously though, I don’t know anything about theirpolitics. He might be really great. We go home to sleep off every trace ofsickness, in order to enjoy our last full day.
Last day!Let’s do this. Everybody leaves in the morning - Fedoua and her husband areworking, and Youmna spends the day at her grandparents’ house - but we havebeen entrusted with a spare key. We take a taxi from the same place as lastnight, feeling super experienced as we make the hand sign to the right and hopinto a half-full taxi heading to the Medina. There are a couple of things wewant to get from the market, but we don’t feel like spending too much time atthe souk. Today it’s over 37°C and that drains you a bit. When a salesmanrushes forward when we come to look at something I say in Swedish “Thank you,but I am completely capable of looking on my own, and you holding something tomy eyes, that is identical to what I am holding, isn’t going to make me want itmore. I’ll leave now.” I find a pair of patterned trousers, and Alva somepretty postcards.
Feelingdone with the souk we go to find a restaurant with only two criteria: nocouscous and no tajine. We have seen lots of culture and non-touristy reality.Therefore I think it’s justified that we, this last lunch, go to a touristyrestaurant where Alva even has a pizza. She says the pizza doesn’t taste ofanything, and takes the ketchup bottle, which is on our table and squeezes itover her pizza. The ketchup spurts out and splatters up in her face and on herarms. We stare at each other, thinking what in the world just happened. I knowit’s probably not the nicest thing to do, but at the sight of Alva with thatshocked expression and ketchup in her face I can help but laugh uncontrollably.Alva has to call for a waiter and ask for some paper, because there never seemsto be any serviettes in this city. I think the situation is hilarious, and assoon as Alva has a ketchup free face, I think she does to.
It's 39°C, so we buy ice cream and slush, because you can't be a real tourist without it.
In Moroccothey have special bathhouses called hammam, where there is water and saunas andyou get showered and washed, possibly scrubbed and massaged. It’s a thing thattourist guides say you must do, and we want to - partly because it’s part ofthe culture, and partly because massage sounds glorious after a week ofwalking. There’s a hammam across the yard from Fedoua’s house, but that’s justshower and sauna, and the women working there only speak Arabic. It looks morelike a place people go to as part of their weekly routine, while the hammams inthe Medina are more spa-like.
We go toone we found on the Internet, guided by the phone’s map - 10 times better thanthe hotel’s paper map. At the hammam they have a package with washing, massage,scrubbing, sauna and possibly something else. The thing is that it’s quiteexpensive, Alva has really sensitive skin and therefore doesn’t want to bescrubbed, and the weather is close enough to being like a sauna that we don’tparticularly want that either. Basically we just want to have a massage. Wetell the owner what we want, and that we are on a tight budget, meaning that thepackage price is too much for us. Then he starts giving us bargains, and keepsgoing while we look sceptical, until he says something that sound completelyreasonable: washing, and 30 minutes massage for 120 dh. I’m surprised not evena places like this stick to their set prices.
We go intothe women’s side of the hammam and put our clothes in lockers. Nudity is thenorm for visitors of the hammam. First we go to the washing room where twoladies pour large scoops of hot water over us. Then we get to lie down inanother room and receive a full-body massage. It feels terrific, especiallywhen they do the arches of the feet. They finish with a bit of soaping and thensplash us with hot water again. We go out and sit for a while in the lockerroom with beautifully patterned walls. I feel like I’ve been reborn. I feel sosoft and fresh and relaxed. It’s great. So worth it. On the way out they offerus tea, but we firmly decline.
We walk inthe direction of Jemaa el-Fnaa, to eventually go back. As we pass the shop of aBerber man he calls out to me and asks if I can take a picture of him next tohis shop, as I have a good camera. I do, and he asks if I can send it to him,and invites me in to get his business card. We are in no hurry, so we goinside. He starts talking about his family in the desert as he looks for thecards. He lets us look through a photo album of brothers and sisters and camelsand sand dunes. I ask how many camels he has (it’s funny how this didn’t feellike an odd question at the time.) and he says “How many camels for you?” I’mreally confused as to what he means, and drop the subject. Berber men wearreally big turbans, but I wonder what the women wear. He says he’ll dress us uplike Berber women, and starts wrapping colourful textiles around us and puts onnecklaces and crowns. “Now you’re a Berber queen”. Then he starts to show uslots of necklaces and bracelets that his family has made, and tells us thestories behind the symbols on them. One is a protecting amulet, one has seven beadsand is used by to keep track of the days of the week in the desert, and so on.Some are really pretty.
He turns toAlva, and asks “How many camels for your friend?” He says I would make a goodBerber wife and that I could bring lots of customers to his shop because I’mpretty. He promises I’d be free to visit my family whenever I wanted. I laughduring this whole conversation, desperately hoping he’s joking. Alva looks atme and makes the calculations. “2000” she says, “and we want the payment inadvance”. They shake hands. So thathappened. I guess it’s nice to know that if all else fails, I can go and be aBerber queen.
Weplay the bargaining game for a bracelet and a candle. He writs a price wecannot pay on a piece of paper, we write a price he cannot accept. Then therewas a lot of scratching out and rewriting, until we’ve gotten a huge discountand Alva says, “We’re buying.” A good last experience of the souk.
We get a bus Fedoua has told us about. The ticket is only 4 dh. Theinside of the bus is so hot. It’s full of people, it’s 39°C, the air doesn’tmove. It’s an interesting experience, because at home, I wouldn’t manage inthis heat, but as we stand on this hot bus, and we and everybody else aresweaty I find that it doesn’t bother me. We’re all in the same situation sonobody will judge your unfreshness, and as to your personal comfort, there’snothing to be done at the moment, so why not just go ahead and deal with it.
When thebus stops at a station, a beggar knocks on the window. “Does he really thinksomebody’s going to throw money out the opening in the window?” I think.Somebody does. Even though pretty much everybody on this bus has less moneythan the average person in Sweden, he gives to somebody who’s even poorer. Ithink that’s touching.
After a bit of freshening up it’s time to go to Khadidja. She greets ushappily and brings us to the top floor, where we’re going to have iftar withsome of the relatives of the Italian café owner. Their apartment is beautiful.The walls are decorated with tiles and the ceiling has fancy decor as well.It’s big and there’s a balcony, matchingly decorated. It’s such a contrast fromFedoua’s plain yellow walls. I’m glad we get to see this other kind of homethat coexists across the street from where we’re staying.
At thetable there’s an older lady and some children. One of them is a 13-year oldgirl who is really shy but super nice and helpful, and who seems to think it’srather exciting to have us foreign guests at the table. Just like Fedoua theydon’t have much furniture - just a table with places to sit, and a TV right bythe dinner table, which is on of course. This is the first flat TV that I seein Marrakech. Everybody is seated, and the food is on the table, but nobody istouching it. At first I wonder what is going on, but then the montage of sunsetand mosque pictures starts on the TV, and I remember. After the sunset has beendeclared everybody starts to help themselves to the food.
We discussmany aspects of Muslim culture with Khadidja. While talking about hijab wemention that Fedoua doesn’t wear one, and Khadidja says “Well that’s fine. Youcan be a good person even though you don’t”. It’s interesting, because inSweden I think you would be more likely to hear someone say, “You can be a goodperson even though you wear a hijab.” Ahijab obviously says nothing about the person under it.
Khadidjathinks it’s interesting to hear about all our travels. We tell her about theplaces we’ve been, and the places we want to see. She has never been outside ofMorocco, and her dreams are of a more modest kind: Turkey, and Egypt, andpossibly the UK. The problem for her is that it’s hard to get a visa travellingfrom Morocco.
She shows us pictures, and we show pictures of our homes and families.It’s a very nice evening. We say good bye to and thank you to them all and headback to Fedoua’s, before she has reason to worry.
A thingabout Youmna. She loves paper. Eating paper. As a thank you for letting usstay, we give Fedoua some gräddkola from Sweden, toffee wrapped in paper, andshe gives one to Youmna. She leaves the sweet and starts eating at the paperinstead. Later when I’m packing I discover that she has been gnawing at on ofthe corners of my diary. Her love of paper suddenly gets dramatically lesscute.
We pack our chaos into the suitcases and go to bed.
It’s ourlast day. We eat, pack, thank Fedoua greatly and leave. We pass the Italiancafé, and meet the 13-year old girl from last night, who’s sweeping the floor.She runs up to us, her face beaming and gives us two goodbye kisses on thecheeks. She’s the best. As we walk to get a taxi we look around, feeling verygrateful and content with how the whole trip has developed, but also feelingvery ready to go home.
Things we missed about Sweden while being in Morocco:
- Drinking water from the tap
- Nice showers and toilets
- Vegetarian food that isn’t couscous or tajine
- Cool weather
- Greenery and lakes
- Full grain bread
- Being left alone when you shop
- Not drawing attention
- Feeling like you belong
We look out the window of the taxi and think back to when we sat in the taxi from the airport the very first day. How much we’ve got to see, to experience, to learn.We take this very nice selfie of us, so much wiser than when we came.
If you’ve actually read all of this, I must say I’m impressed. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed it.