Getting Lost in the Old Medina of Fes

After getting ripped off by the taxi coming from the CTM bus station, we got dropped off at an entrance of the old Medina of Fes, in front of an obscure alley. “Straight ahead, then right” scrambled the driver, directing us to our riad. A fainting light hardly lit the entrance arch. We paid the atrocious amount of 70dh to our driver, to later finding out it was really supposed to be 20dh. We headed up the alley. The ”straight ahead” became a panoply of zigzags going uphill through dark pathways. Soon enough, our confident look turned into complete confusion. A little boy on his bicycle pointed a direction. It couldn’t seem more like the beginning of the end, lost in a maze of confusion in alleys of wandering kids and young men gatherings. However, the way indicated was more attractive than the basic directions our driver told us.

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A lot of children wander the alleys, day and night, cruising on bicycles or playing futbol. There will be more happy to show you the way or pose for a picture… in exchange for a dirham or two.

At the end of the passage, a group of young men greeted us by a stand of candies. “Are you lost?”. We tried to hide the truth but our dazed look confirmed his thoughts. “I’ll guide you to your place” he continued, anticipating the answer. At this point, we didn’t have better choice. Either to follow him, or be followed.

After a left, and a sharp right through a gloomy tunnel, another left and a final right, we ended up at the end of the darkest alley where he opened a wooden door. I was reassured as soon as I recognized the living area with the vaulted ceiling pictured on the website. Therefore, the place was unlit and deserted.Suddenly, three giggling heads popped out from an indoor balcony. Pretending to be the only guests in the large riad, the three stooges invited us to join them upstairs. Lisa and I burst into an uncontrollable laugh. When assured we were safe, our guide wished us goodnight and goodstay without asking for any charge. He ended up being a real gentleman. We finally got shown a room: spacious with high ceilings, hand-carved walls, ceramic windows and three balconies facing the ceramic chandelier and overlooking the communal living area. The bed had golden sheets and the detailed lanterns added magic to the room. The bathroom was beautiful and cozy with stone work on the floor and walls. We had our palace. One guy finally admitted to work at the riad and gave us the key to the room. We were still laughing from the moment we got out of the cab and got lost in the dingy alleys. We even dropped of laughter on the floor when I found a pair of old man underwear on our royal couch. Good times. Medina of Fes Founded in 793 AD, Fes is found in the foothills of the North Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. With nearly 10,000 streets, the medina inhabits about 150,000 Fassis. Probably the largest and oldest in Morocco, the medina is made of about 300 neighbourhoods, each housing five important features: a school, a mosque, a fountain, a bread oven and a hammam. Hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling products such as dates, spices, carpets, copper urns and musical instruments are found in the narrow alleys, as well as the local people and tourist brave enough to venture the busy maze.

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Breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the Medina of Fes

After an attempt to explore on our own, we soon got lost, as it is a certainty in Fes. We ended up following an other young man to the main square. Five hours later, he was still guiding us. We visited a traditional leather tannery where we got given a bunch of mint at the entrance to diminish the pungent smell. We observed the process overlooking the tanning pits awash with coloured dye. Lisa got a bag made out of camel leather and rug, and a beautiful pair of boots the same style. I got an Indigo wallet made out of camel stomach.

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Leather Souq, the oldest leather tannery in the world. Tanning pits are like honeycombs where workers treat and work the leather. First, the leather is soaked in diluted acid pigeon excrement to soften hide, then it is soaked in vegetable dye such as henna, saffron and mint,  and finally hung to dry.

We continued with a visit to an argan oil and natural remedy pharmacy. Then the carpet and blanket factory where we had mint tea. Lisa ended up purchasing a beautiful carpet and a cozy blanket.

For lunch, we skipped the traditional tourist restaurant and opted for an authentic family eatery instead. A woman brought us in the kitchen making us sample three different dishes with a communal spoon. I chose the lamb, Lisa chose the beef. It was served as tagines, with side plates of lentils, caramelized onions, white beans, and cooked salad. Our presence was very noticeable as we were the only women patrons in the room. Food was authentic, delicious and a cheaper option.

Walking in the streets of the old medina was definitely a tumultuous experience. Venturing through slippery and tight alleys amongst donkeys, Fassis, tourists and sheeps being purchased for the Eid Al-Adha was inevitable and a constant effort. But these are nothing less than the joy of travelling!

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Sheeps marked for the Eid Al-Adha

Since we were off volunteer duty for the weekend, we decided it would be a good time to treat ourselves. Morocco doesn’t tolerate alcohol openly however, liquor stores can be found in some of the largest cities. We ventured outside the busy medina and took a cab to Burj Fes (shopping mall) where we stacked up on some goodies. Our plan was to be back on time for sunset, however all cabs were fully occupied due to rush hour. After waiting a good 20 minutes beside a stall selling sheep, we finally got a cab to pull over. Unfortunately, language barrier got in the way and we got dropped off at the wrong entrance of the medina. With the night approaching and a group of locals circling us offering to walk us through the dark maze, I found myself at the edge of losing it. I took a deep breath and stepped back. They were only trying to help us, yet their approach was overwhelming. They put us back in the cab and told the driver the correct way. We made it safe back to our riad. And so on, finishing the day on the roof top terrace munching on goat cheese, sweet dates and chocolate, sipping on Moroccan wine. I admired the old Medina of Fes illuminated by thousands of lights while the prayer chanting of a thousand Fassis soothed the chaos of the day. We shared travel stories with our local host and a German guest while the scent of Moroccan hash floated in the cool air of the African night.

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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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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.

Sand Castles, Golden Dunes & Camel Love

The sun painted the sand a peachy light, at times switching to rosy stripes. My scarf protected my head, shielding the sun and the midday fieriness. My legs dangled on each sides of his ribs, 6 feet from the sandfield. He wasn’t the most cushy ride, but I couldn’t criticize, I was the one sitting on his back. His hoofs softly brushed the golden sand. His lashes were lengthy and thick, mighty and majestic. Sometimes he would turn at me, requesting a scratch on his long wool neck. His name was Africa. An athletic and elegant 21-year-old dromedary, worker of the desert people.

When my mom announced she would meet with me in Morocco, I was overly excited at the idea of travelling with such a cultivated and well-travelled woman. At 63 years old, she was ready to jump on local buses, eat from street stalls, ride a camel through the desert and get lost in the chaotic Arab country. A few years earlier, she travelled solo, within an organized group, to Morocco where she experienced it all. She didn’t want me to leave the country without seeing the Great South so, after travelling Marrakech and Essaouira together, we jumped into a 5 day road trip through the High Atlas Mountains, all the way to the entrance of the Sahara Desert.

We could have rented a car and done the drive ourselves, since the roads are well maintained, it is easy to navigate and traffic fairly makes sense. But we treated ourselves with a driver, to avoid confusion, save time and get to know more about the country from a resident’s perspective. We met Hocine, a young Berber who was going to chauffeur us on our journey aboard a spacious and comfortable wagon.

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Day 1: The Road to Ouarzazate

We left Marrakech early this morning and headed south towards Ouarzazate. The two Kasbahs we visited didn’t impressed me as much as the drive itself. The winding road through the Atlas was stunning, with earthy mountains and vast dunes forming the view, and a variety of fruit trees such as olives, oranges, lemons, dates and figs colouring the lunar landscape. Berger and their goats were seen climbing the mountains in search of a meal, accidentally throwing rocks on the paved road. I glimpsed at men travelling long distances on donkeys, artists selling handmade pottery and crafts and vendors selling fossils and mineral rocks from the Atlas.

We arrived in Zagora where Ismael, our 16-year-old chamelier, guided us through the obscurity of the night. Aboard our own camels, we ventured to what seemed to be a space odyssey through a lunar sandfield. We had no control on our animal, had left all our belongings in the car (requested to only bring the essential) and put all our trust in this boy. What was thought to be a 20 min camel ride ended up being an hour journey through the darkest night. We finally arrived at the bivouac, where we laughed about what just happened, glad we made it safe. We were invited to join fellow travellers sitting on the sand. Tea was served and conversations were shared with the Berber. A delicious couscous was prepared then served in the main tent.  There were chanting and dancing around the bonfire, feet in the sand while the moon slowly climbed into the darkness.

Day 2: Sunrise camel trek in Zagora

When Ismael whispered “it’s time” at the door of our tent, it wasn’t 6am yet. There was no possibility to sleep in or snooze for an other 15. It was time. I put on my hoodie, wrapped my scarf around my neck and grabbed my camera. Barefoot I left the tent and climbed the dune ahead. Fellow early rising companions were sitting atop the dune, blankets around their shoulders, camera on tripod ready for action. I looked at the horizon. At the end of this terrain of sand, stood the mountains. And there it was. The first ray of the sun, penetrating the blue morning light.

We cameled back to our vehicle as the sun slowly reached up to the sky. We were relieved to see Hocine, along with all our belongings. Back into the car and en route to Mergouza.

Day 3: Entering the door of the Sahara in Mergouza

I got introduced to Africa.  Entering the doors of the Sahara, we embarked on a scenic and pleasant 2 hour journey through the silent dunes of Erg Chebbi.

We arrived on time at the bivouac for the sunset. I jumped off Africa’s back, feet landing in the cool shaded sand. I scratched his head as a thankful gesture, also giving him a slight break from the resting flies on his face.

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I challenged myself in a race against time towards the highest dune ahead. I wanted to be a spectator of the most impressive sunset. I’ve seen a lot of setting suns, over oceans, mountains, cities and landscapes. Therefore, I was still a virgin of this upcoming spectacle. Sitting atop this challenged dune, the sand slowly cooling off underneath my feet, I admired a sea of seemingly endless sand dunes: quiet, scenic, majestic. The scarf that once protected my head soon covered my shoulders. The sun slowly disappeared behind the dunes, cooling the air and leaving room for the moon to take over the sky.

Berber carpets were placed on the sand in front of each tent. A short table was placed on top, with cushions at its sides. handmade blankets for extra comfort. Dinner was cooked and served by the chameliers on each table. A delicious traditional couscous paired with an authentic Moroccan mint tea. Romantic candlelit dinner in the middle of the desert, in the comfort of the cushiony sand, under a shimmering African sky.

Day 4: Todra Gorge in Tinerhir and the Road of the Thousand Kasbahs

Watching the sun rise over a sea of sand dunes was revitalizing. I jumped on Africa and we took the road back to civilization.

On our way to Tinerhir to go explore the Todgha Gorge. My stomach is upset and I can’t even swallow a sip of water. While my mom is dining solo downstairs, sharing my sickness with fellow travellers, I am stuck in bed with the worst dizziness. If it wasn’t for the kindness of the guesthouse host bringing me a Vervaine tea and some rice, I would’ve not eaten in 3 days. I managed to rest, have one bite of rice and magically finished the tea. The next morning I was welcomed by everyone in the dining room, asking how I felt. Thanks mom!

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding and language barrier between our guide, our driver and us, we ended up skipping the Gorge, at my greatest disappointment. Instead, and little did we know, we were brought to a Berber women carpet factory where our guide strongly forced us to purchase a product, making us feel bad towards the hard work of women. I’ve been travelling Morocco for 6 weeks now and I’ve heard the song before. I have already did my part and I hate when people see us as travelling banks. I friendly told him that I came to volunteer in Morocco. He understood right away that my finances weren’t similar as a wealthy European traveller. However, he turned to my mom who felt so bad that she ended up buying an expensive piece of carpet that she’ll never use. Oh mom! Things like that unfortunately happen when travelling in foreign countries where tourism has a challenging impact on locals. We were very disappointed in not seeing the gorge, but at this point it is what it is.

We headed west on the “Road of the thousand Kasbahs”, a spectacular drive along desert landscapes, snow-capped mountains and palm groves. We also stopped in El Kelaa M’gouna, the “Valley of the Roses”, to grab rose water spray bottles, which made for great presents to bring home.

Day 5: Wrapping up in Ouarzazate

I felt like I froze up in time when I entered the 11th century Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. The walls made of red mudbrick formed a labyrinth of inhabited homes, souvenir stalls and view points. While most residents now live in a more modern village at the other end of the river, 8 families still inhabit this fortified city.

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Last stop is at the Atlas Studio where many Hollywood and famous movies have been filmed. We walked through the impressive decor, fighting the gusty sandy wind.

Back in Marrakesh, we thank Hocine and generously tip him. He’s been a helpful and attentionate chauffeur and we wish him the best. It’s been a great adventure here in the Great South of Morocco and am so fortunate I got to share this amazing experience with my mother.

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For more information about the excursions, check out www.clickexcursions.com

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.