Volunteer Abroad: Reflexions & Conclusion

News from Morocco: The warm sunrays light up the alleys of the Medina. The scents of olives, spices and cow’s feet travel the streets. I walk from my lovely homestay through the alleys towards my work place. Teaching the kids in the morning, empowering the women in the afternoon. However, I’m not sure who’s gaining more from this: them or me. I’m already learning the basics of Arabic, how to cook Moroccan dishes, how to make a djellaba… The prayer chanting at 5:30 in the morning at the mosque nearby inspire my dreams. I am so fortunate  to be here. Insha’Allah! (Facebook post from 9/01/2013)

The day has come. Too fast, too soon. I was getting comfortable with my volunteering work, my host family, the smell in the alleys, the call to prayer at 5 in the morning, then I had to leave.

Farewells to the Women

The language barrier, altered culture, different traditions and religion made the journey challenging, but interesting and enlightening. To see the progress that in only a few weeks we made was significantly noteworthy. It surely wasn’t much, oh no, but you can’t change the world in a few days. We didn’t manage to teach languages, however, the progress came from the exchanges and interactions amongst all of us, women. We connected with them by showing truthful enthusiasm in their lives and environment, and the interest was mutual. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what colour of skin we had, what language we spoke, what country we came from, what religion we believed in. It was the sympathetic feelings of solidarity, recognition, and togetherness that brought us all together. I realized that unitedly we made it all possible. We empowered each other. There is still a long way to go, but with the help and support of following volunteers, these beautiful women will grow into flourishing human beings.

After exchanging email addresses, clicking some photographs, and drying some tears, we said goodbyes. I left the blank booklets and pens on the table, with hopes to inspire them to learn furthermore. I accepted the kiss on the cheek but also reached for a hug, and I held them all with all my love.

Farewells to the Children

The class prematurely finished that day and the kids were brought to the courtyard. The teachers put on music and, while holding hands in a circle, we sang, swung, jumped, skipped and spun on the dance floor. It was a full hour of festivities, filled with laughs, giggles and beaming smiles. The children were too young to understand the reality of the event: they had no idea we were leaving. All they wanted was to be part of an image clicked by my camera, their toothless smiles and bright shiny eyes ready to be photographed.

The teachers brought us to the back room. There was a table with empty glasses and a box. “Tea?” I asked. They shook their heads. They opened the box which was filled with baked goods. They poured thick milk in the glasses. “This is for you. To thank you.”

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I was overwhelmed by all this devotion and appreciation. I felt like the worst teacher and didn’t believe I deserved such a celebration.

“Of course you do. You were one of our best volunteers. It’s not about the techniques or the rules that are followed from a book. It’s about you, your heart to heart presence with the children and your genuine connection with each one of them. You influenced and inspired them. They looked up to you. Believe us, we know our children.”

Indeed. I’ve never realized any of that. I felt like those teachers, and those women and even those kids taught me way more than I taught any of them.

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Picture taken on my last day at work with the children, the Dar Attilaba teachers and IVHQ coordinator.

The teachers also made me promise to come back and stay with them, and teach their kids. It was hard to hold the tears and I could see theirs reaching the edges of their almond shaped eyes.

I hugged the children goodbye, without being able to explain that this would be the last. Those kids that once were so challenging to teach. Although at the end, I saw them as my students. The ones that looked up to me eager to learn. The ones that get so excited when I reached papers out of my bag for them to colour. The ones whose eyes sparkle as they see PlayDoh for the first time. The ones that held my hand while a story was read. The ones that ran into my arms and gave me the most sincere kiss on the forehead.

Conclusion

This first volunteering work in Morocco was indeed one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only did I gain a better cultural understanding of a country, being exposed to a new language, religion and environment, but I also built strong ties with inspiring and remarkable individuals. Volunteering abroad has met my expectations in many ways: I did get confused, disoriented and uncomfortable. I did think: “what have I gotten myself into.” And I’m glad I did. You can only grow and learn when you take risks and accept challenges. And once you start thinking outside the box and work past your comfort zone, you get a true sense of accomplishment and identity. This mind-opening experience not only gave me the chance to change others, but it mostly changed me. As well as having a positive and meaningful impact on the community, this volunteering work experience gave me a new perspective on life and gave me a sense of purpose. It also motivated me to engage myself furthermore into developing communities and continue to help others in need: To volunteer, to give back and to receive, and to be involved as a global citizen.

Rabat, Morocco, 2013: Where I have left a piece of my heart, along with a footprint behind.

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Empowering Women

I was sitting at a table amongst women whose eyes were locked on their sewing projects. Since the program was new, I had limited instructions on what exactly I was supposed to do, and how to do it. I had brought writing booklets and pens in case teaching some French, their second language, would be part of the class. However, I soon realized that none of them spoke a word of French, nor English. In fact, they barely spoke at all. They were quietly intrigued by my blank sheets and pens but as soon as I would reach to them they would go back straight to their projects.

Many women in Morocco suffer from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. The program was conceived to empower women by improving literacy levels, assisting with professional development and providing support to females suffering from domestic violence. The idea was to help them with languages, give them the tools to enter the work environment and build their confidence.

Jemilah was in charge of the sewing activity in the afternoon. She had a contagious smile, her beautiful face delicately wrapped in a pink hijab. Her job was to hold a free class of a few hours each day, and where any women could feel comfortable to come in and sit amongst other females. There wasn’t any formal teaching, but rather a gathering of females sharing the same learning activity while having the support of others.  At 28 years old, Jemilah was an educator at the Dar Attilaba, loving wife and caring mother. She always carried a portfolio of different sewing projects, most of them leading to the creation of a djellaba.

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Although Jemilah’s French was limited to only a few words, I managed to have a bit of understanding with her. Since we needed to bring our own material, she took us on a walk on our second day to get what we needed to participate in the class. We followed her through the mazed alleys of the medina in search of threads and fabric.
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We spent afternoons with Jemilah and her students, sitting at the table learning the art of Moroccan sewing and being taught the basics of Arabics. At this point, I was confused and powerless, as I felt I received more that I actually gave. My pens and blank booklets stayed on the table, however I decided not to touch them. I realized that at this point, I couldn’t teach any language. Perhaps the idea was simply to genuily be interested and engaged in their lives, the best we could. My goal became to do the best I could each day to have their eyes lift from their sewing project and acknowledge our presence. Some days would be more silent, other days we would laugh at how incredibly awkward it was to understand each other. And that became the reward. In a month, we barely exchanged any words, but communicated with expressions, signs, smiles and laughs.

It took a while before adjusting to this very new situation, but after a few weeks, it almost felt like family.

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Teaching Children

When reading the description of tasks, it wasn’t clear to me what ‘helping with children’ exactly implied. Besides my experience teaching swimming lessons (which I actually really enjoyed), I didn’t have much of a teaching background. And working with kids? I mean, kids are fine, although I find at times awkward to deal with their impulsivity, loudness, hyperactivity, whining or disobedience. Plus, besides my two adorable nephews that I see once a year, children are not part of my environment. This experience was going to be an amazing opportunity not only to learn more about these little people, but also to develop my communication and personal skills, as well as testing my initiative and discipline.

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When I stood up in front of the class on my first day, I had no idea at the near second what I was going to say. All eyes were on me, impatient to learn and eager to hear me speak. French? English? I noticed the alphabet letters displayed on the wall. I took a chalk and wrote on the black board and, with probably the biggest interrogation point in my face, spelt in French:“A?” Immediately, the 14 students repeated after me, loud and clear: “A!” “Ok,” I thought to myself, “that’s a good start.” I then invited Lisa to take over for the English part. We did the same with numbers, and days of the week, and colours. We were teaching.

We taught children every morning, and soon enough got a grip of it. As young as they were, and as limited with the languages they would know, we managed to introduce activities to make the learning interactive, fun and creative.

A week earlier back home, people were curious to know why I was bringing Play Doh on my trip. Actually, I always bring this modeling compound while travelling abroad to give to children I meet and interact with. When I was challenged to teach kids and bring something new to both the class and their teachers, I managed to incorporate the colourful dough in the activities. With that new and fun tool, we taught kids numbers, small mathematics and how to sculpt letters of the alphabet. Plus, we all had a blast!

The weeks went by and I started to get a feeling of attachment. When teachers switched the class to Arabic and read stories, the girls would hold my hands, play with my jewelry and give me occasional kisses on the cheeks. When playtime arrived at the end of each class, kids that once were independently roaming around the yard, soon took our hands and dragged us with them. In the open-air courtyard we sang, danced and played in harmony.

I soon realized it didn’t matter if we had teaching experience or not. The concept was to give through the donation of time with the willingness to contribute and help, with positive energy, and compassion. Once you overcome the challenging feelings of discomfort and disorientation, you realize that you are capable of achieving. And to see those little faces staring at you with a big smile, holding your hands tight without wanting to let it go, that is a pure joy and the greatest reward.

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Soon, those children filled with happiness and love became the reasons to wake up eagerly each morning.

 

Orientation

Departure

I woke up to an appetizing warm meal with cheese and bread waiting on my table tray in front of me. “Rouge ou blanc?” asked the flight attendant from Air France. “Juste de l’eau, merci,” I answered. “Madame, il vous faut du vin avec votre repas,” he insisted. “Rouge alors, merci.” I was on my third and last connecting flight towards Morocco, spoiled with a nice meal and wine and a beautiful pink sunset over a sea of fluffy clouds.

Arrival

“Bienvenue au Maroc!” saluted the immigration officer. When I got off the plane in Rabat, Salah, an employee of ICLS, partner of IVHQ waited for me at the arrival gate with a welcome sign. Along with an other volunteer, he explained us that he was going to be our in-land coordinator and then chauffeured us to our designated host families.

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Orientation

The first day was reserved for the orientation. Hyat, our host ‘mother’, cabbed us to the ILCS placement in the district of Sale. ILCS works in partnership with IVHQ to offer the volunteer services in Rabat.We met our coordinators and fellow volunteers of different placements. The day was spent to discuss about the importance of volunteering, to share our expectations and to talk about the benefits of the volunteer work. They also educated us on the norms and customs of the country, as well as a crash course on religion and traditions.

After a very informative and educative orientation, Salah took the group for a tour of the city. He pointed at the location and use of banks, transportation systems, cellphone services. We also had lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant where we all experienced for the first time their famous tagine.

En Route to Our Work Placement

Our work placement happened to be centrally located in the same medina as our homestay. We followed our host ‘mother’ for a short walk through the tight alleys, passing merchants setting up their stalls for business and cats enjoying the morning quietness.

Dar Attaliba

When Lisa and I arrived at Dar Attaliba, we entered the walls of the medina through a small wooden door and walked into a bright courtyard. Dar Attaliba  is a female student house that offers academic support for local women and young girls affected by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and/or violence. We noticed 2 levels around the courtyard. There was three rooms at the lowest floor: one with toddlers, one with preschoolers, and one with women. A curved staircase stairs led upstairs to a room reserved for teaching and another one for sewing and brodering activities.

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Meeting the Women

There was a small group of women sitting around a table. We could easily differentiate the participants from the educators, the latter wearing long white coats. I shook hands with each one of them, and received a timid kiss on both cheeks, as tradition it seemed.  The women were very timid and reserved and their eyes were locked on their project with only a shy smile once in a while to acknowledge our presence. I soon realized that none of the women could speak French or English. And unfortunately my Arabic was embarrassingly nonexistent. The language barrier put us into an immediate discomfort and awkwardness state. I knew right then that this experience was going to be one of the most challenging, hence the most worth it.

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Meeting the Children

We were sitting at a low table and on tiny chairs between children aged from 2 to 8. Eyes were all on us and once again, we were confused at exactly what role to play. The ‘occasional childcare’ listed in the description of tasks didn’t seem to be sufficient for our understanding. Were we supposed to assist the teachers? Were we supposed to bring teaching material? Were we supposed to stand up and actually teach? I never taught before, only swimming lessons while in my teens, but in a class? And what language do they speak? What do they know? How to teach a class that has such a large age difference? And why is the whole class staring at us impatiently waiting for instructions? My discomfort got interrupted while I glimpsed at Lisa whose ‘get me outta here’ look in her eyes couldn’t hide any longer behind her uncertain smile. Her tall body was cramped on her miniature chair and she had a ‘please save me’ sign on her forehead. I started giggling and soon enough decompressed. That scene gave me the chance to breathe. Let’s do this!

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I saw a black board on the wall. I stood up and took a piece of chalk. I had absolutely no idea on what to say or do next, but I accepted the challenge!

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Hanging Loose in Taghazout

North of the city of Agadir, in the south west coast of Morocco, is located the small fishing village of Taghazout, where sun bleached hair surfers showcase their skills on the ocean curls and where camels lounge peacefully on the golden beaches.

Mostly of Berber origins, the residents have become to be local surfers, blending with an increasing number of tourists who come to experience the Atlantic waves. Along with tourism, fishing and the production of Argan oil are the main source of income. French is the main language spoken after Arabic, but it is becoming common to hear English spoken by locals, whom learned from visitors.

There are many consistent and generally uncrowded breaks to choose from, whether you are a beginner, an intermediate or an advanced surfer. As well as the rest of Morocco, Taghazout is famous for its long right hand point breaks. With the right conditions, this point can offer a 2km ride, surfing from ”village to village”, starting at Anchor Point, meeting up with Hash Point and ending at Panorama’s beach break.

A few restaurants are lined up on the main street, offering a variety of food, from Moroccan dishes to International cuisine. You will also find souvenir stalls and small convenient stores with non-aggressive and laid back sellers.

Many surf schools have grown in recent years offering lessons and guidance, with packages including accommodation, lessons, authentic meals and rentals. If you don’t want to book a package with one of the surf schools, you can simply rent one of the many apartments, most of them oceanfront.  If you choose that option, I highly recommend to rent a car to give you the freedom to travel from break to break, do a trip in town, explore the coast and its surroundings, or simply chase the sunsets.

The coastal city of Agadir is approximately 20 min drive South from Taghazout. You will find a variety of large malls with grocery and liquor stores where you can pack up on what you need (remember that Morocco is a Muslim country where the consumption of alcohol isn’t openly tolerated. So be wise where you drink and how you act. Be a smart tourist and respect the locals). The city center is large and dynamic with tons of shops and restaurants servicing a diverse clientele. For souvenir shopping, the Agadir Souk is a great stop, although be ready to pay more than other cities. The beautiful and clean waterfront promenade offers a lovely stroll where you can glimpse at kids playing futbol and families gathering.

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If the water is flat and the waves are shy, a nice day trip to Paradise Valley is in order. About 45min drive through a winding mountain road and you arrive at the entrance of the trail. The Valley was found by a German couple who took refuge there for a few years to recover from illness. They were cured by the peacefulness and natural surrounding of the Valley. Hence the name, Paradise Valley. Hang out on the rocks, cool off in the refreshing turquoise pools, show off by jumping off the rocks.

Taghazout is a beautiful, peaceful and friendly surfing destination. Whether you come here to learn how to stand on your board, or are in search of the perfect sea surf, this little coastal village is sure to satisfy your adventurer’s needs. Conquer the waves, taste the salt on your lips, feel the sun warming your face and hang loose on the beach amongst fellow surfing enthusiasts, friendly dogs and lounging camels. You’ll leave with new friends, improved skills and fascinating stories to tell.

Marrakech: Where the Magic Happens. Or Does It?

The impressive red walled medina is an extensive labyrinth of tangled tight streets, unfortunate homeless, everyday survivors and kids calcitrating donkeys. A city of snake ‘charmers”, monkey entertainers and aggressive sellers. Sore for the eyes, arduous on the heart, but it is the reality of the place, whether you like it or not. Despite the poverty of the people and the cruelty towards mules, the 11th century built city is a beautiful destination with a lot to offer. Once the capital of the kingdom, the imperial city now serves as a major economic center and is one of the busiest cities in Africa, attracting visitors from all around the world. The Red City, given the name from its red sandstone walls and buildings, is also an important cultural, religious and trading center for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

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Avoid getting lost for fun in the medina. Grab a map and familiarize yourself with the area. The fortified city is a seemingly endless maze and will bring you to less desirable places; areas you don’t necessarily want to see. If you stay around the Jeema el-Fnaa square and the Souk, you’ll have plenty of streets of markets to meander through and eye-popping things to see.

*** Tip: don’t follow the directions to the square from the souk. They will mislead you and make you go around the whole market. From the souks, keep a right to get back to the square.

Shopping

The souks are a panoply of alleyways of tiny retail cubicles. Each sections specialize in local goods: carpets, maroquinerie, crafts, pottery, blankets, thuya fabrications, and the list goes on. Marrakech also hosts the largest traditional Berber souk in Morocco.

Before you spend your dirhams at the souks, you need to put on your “smart shopper shoes”. Vendors will do their best to rip you off as many bills they can. Here are some tips on the event:
  1. When you enter a store, walk with blindfolds. Don’t look straight at items, especially not something you might be interested. Look wide and uninterested.
  2. Once you are really sure you like something with the intention to buy, have a look at it. The vendor will be standing next to you in a heartbeat.
  3. Ask for the price. They will start with a number. When it’s your turn, cut by a 3/4. Then you will meet each other somewhere halfway between the original price of the seller and yours.
  4. If he doesn’t play along, or keep his price too high, start to walk away. Most likely they will chase you and let the item go at your price. Example: you are interested in buying a pair of babouches (Moroccan shoes). The seller will start at 150dh. Your turn: “50dh”. “120dh”. “70dh”. “100dh”. “80dh final price”, you say. “Ok 90dh”. “No, I’m sorry, 80dh was my final price”. Then, walk away. “Ok, ok, ok”. The seller puts them in a bag. Hand over the money. Done.
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Staying
Riads become pure oasis in bustling Marrakech. After a day of craziness in the tight alleys, it is nice to come back to quietness and peacefulness. Open the wooden door and enter a paradise for travellers. Relax on a comfortable sofa in the open aired common area, amongst orange trees and birds resting in peace. Breakfast will be served on the terrace, with freshly squeezed orange juice and Moroccans crepes. You can also order dinner, which will be prepared with fresh ingredients purchased the same day (pastillas were my favourite).
At Riad Laila,Moroccan breakfast is enjoyed in the garden and dinner is served poolside.
At Riad Dar Rmane, Rachida will make sure your stay is memorable. Dates, dried apricot, cashews and olives will be served to you with a glass of wine while you read a book, relaxing on a long chair on the roof terrace. Order dinner before 2pm and she will shop for the freshest ingredients and prepare you a delicious dinner served on the open air living room, on a bed of petals.

Activities

If you need to get away from the hustling and bustling of the Red City, why not enroll in a cooking class? You’ll spend a day out in the country testing your knowledge about spices and learning to cook delicious authentic Moroccan dishes. Enjoy your concoction outside in the garden with fellow students. Perhaps a glass of wine will be offered. For more information, visit Michel’s webpage: www.faimdepices.com

And how about treating yourself at the spa at the end of your stay? Marrakech has a variety of spas offering a wide range of massages, facial services, body treatments and beauty work. The best is to finish in a traditional hammam. Try out Hammam 1001 Nuits located at the entrance of the Jeema el-Fnaa.

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Just a few minutes walk from one of the northern entrance of the medina, you’ll find the beautiful botanical gardens of Majorelle. Designed in the 20’s and 30’s by French artist Jacques Majorelle, it has now become a famous tourist attraction in Marrakech. French designer Yves St-Laurent purchased the garden in 1980 and, when he passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden. Today, a memorial is set on a pedestal with a plate bearing his name to remember him and his work.  “It is a way for artists to live on… ”

Magical Marrakech?

The raw reality is apparent and harsh to admit. From wealthy tourists photographing poverty in the streets, to sellers fighting severely over a sale. Tourism has a huge impact on the people of Marrakech and it is hard to know if it’s for better or worse. For instance, those snakes aren’t charmed by the charmers. In fact, not only are they tranquilized, but their mouth is also sewn to prevent bites. The reason why they stand straight is because they are scared. Becoming extinct animals, they are most likely to die after 3 months of work. And how about those cute little monkeys? Their life isn’t so cute. Taken away from their mothers at an early age, they endure months of cruel training, such as chains around their necks, hands tied behind their back, food denied until they adopt the right acrobatics. Their teeth are pulled out and the animals are then kept in cramped boxes all day under the heat, making them suffer from heat stroke and illness. At night, they are forced to perform for the tourists, the latter to be smiling towards a proud picture to show off friends and family. Please, please, please, show consideration towards the cruelty for the animals. Don’t encourage such tourist traps. Marrakech is a lovely place, with more to offer than cruelty towards unprivileged animals. Be a smart traveller. If you wish to help and donate, visit Fondation Helga Heidrich SOS Animaux.

Conclusion

If you are looking for an out-of-the-ordinary holiday, an out-of-your-comfort-zone stay, or simply are thirsty for a cultural adventure, visit Marrakech, the city that never sleeps. Wander around the colourful alleys illuminated by candles and lanterns. Find your way through the smoke from the cooking stands in the middle of the square. Be charmed by the sounds of flutes erecting the snakes, the rhythms of the locals jamming in the public place, and the prayer chanting from the minarets. Maybe you’ll find some magic intriguing your senses.

Easy and Breezy in Essaouira

The soaring and screaming of the seagulls accompany the melody of the sea. Inside the medina, white are the walls and majorelle blue are the old windows and wooden doors we see. The air is fresh, the pace is slow, the colours are soft and the people are hassle-free.

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Essaouira is a small fishing town located in the western coast of Morocco. It is inhabited by Arabs, Berbers and Gwanas, giving a rich cultural mix to the town. The bay is partially shielded by the island of Mogador protecting the peaceful harbour against strong winds coming from the sea. The medina, wrapped around with white ramparts, is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city making the town a must to add to your itinerary.

Shopping the tranquil alleys of the medina is a great option for souvenir hunting. The non-agressive vendors make it for a nice and peaceful stroll, giving you the proper time to shop stress-free. Follow the aroma of spices floating in the damp sea air. Search for argan oil, natural medicine, Thuya crafts or maroquinerie while shopping in a mellow atmosphere. The prices are already low, but there is always room for bargaining.

There are several restaurants offering Moroccan cuisine, although a lot are also serving European meals, such as pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and fries. Most riad will include Moroccan breakfast with the stay. Most will also offer a homemade dinner, at a fairly good price. Eating at the riad is a very attractive option. While dining in the comfort of your hotel, you will taste authentic dishes made out of fresh local ingredients (purchased on the same day). If they don’t sell alcohol, they will most likely let you bring a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. It is a cheap, convenient and delicious option!

Feline strollers seem better nourished and healthier than other Moroccan cities. Volunteers come twice a year to fix the females. Restaurants also spoil the furry companions with left-over foods and fresh water.

People don’t come to Essaouira for a sun vacation. Even though it is shinning here most days of the year, the town holds strong marine winds that could make some visitors unpleased and bothered. With an approximate 25km/h wind everyday, the town is known as the character wind city of Africa and has grown in becoming one of the best place to come windsurfing. Hundreds are seen defeating the wind, jumping the waves, and racing the gulls. I won’t suggest having a picnic on the beach with that kind of air current, unless you like crunchy bits in your sandwich. However, a few restaurants offer a good break from the wind, offering comfort food and refreshings.

At the end of the beach, camels and horses are found, ready to provide you with a scenic ride along sand dunes while admiring the sun setting over the ocean. If the idea doesn’t attract you that much, the images of these gorgeous animals strolling in front of the sunset make up for great pictures.

Essaouira is a purely tranquil holiday. Stroll the hassle-free medina, eat the catch of the day on the quay, have a mint tea on one of the terrace watching people go by, take culinary lessons with the cook at your riad, take a walk on the beach, admire stunning sunsets while sitting on a camel back. This little fishing town is a perfect retreat by the sea (and a natural exfoliant).

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Photo taken by my beautiful mother