My Moroccan Adventure- a photo essay

Every country has a word that can be used to describe it. For example, Spain is passionate, India is colourful and Morocco…well, it’s unique. For a small country sitting on the western edge of Africa, Morocco offers plenty to keep your senses busy and happy. But it’s not just that. It’s the fact that anything that you will encounter in Morocco, you’ll be hard pressed to find it elsewhere in the world. Be it the type of architecture, the mouthwatering tajines and couscous, the cosy djelaba gown or the famed argan oil, Morocco just does things differently, and that is what makes it more alluring to its visitors. Oh, and did I mention the huge variety of stunning landscapes that are also on offer? If you’re asking me whether you should go to Morocco, well I’m asking you, why the hell haven’t you been yet?

Landscape

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Morocco offers stunning landscape to wander around. It has nice beaches too, but they were not a part of my itinerary. Clockwise from left: outside Ifrane;  sunset in Sahara desert; on the way to Merzouga; farming land near Volubilis; Skoura valley with date palm oasis; Tizi N’Tichka pass (highest motorable pass in Morocco)

Architecture

Mosques, madressas (Islamic schools), mausoleums

Mosques, madressa and mausoleums play an integral role in Morocco’s religious life and it is no wonder that Moroccans have traditionally invested a lot of effort in designing these spaces. The mosques range from very old and historic to very new; very grand to  very humble. Mosques usually stand on their own, although madressas and mausoleums can also feature a mosque within their compound. 

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Religion and architecture (clockwise from left): the famous Hassan II mosque, Casablanca; women’s section of mosque beside mausoleum of Mohammed V, Rabat; the inside of men’s section of a mosque at a highway restaurant; a village mosque; the famous Koutubia mosque, Marrakech
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Religion and architecture (clockwise from left): mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes; the famous Qarawayyin mosque, Fes; madressa in Chellah, Rabat; mausoleum of Mohammed V, Rabat; madressa Attarine, Fes; madressa Bou Inania, Meknes

Rural

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Rural- scape: Humble housing in villages. Houses are made of sun-hardened mud bricks, then additional mud is plastered over to increase durability.

Kasbah

Kasbah means either a fortified house or a village. Kasbahs are a reminder of Morocco’s rich history when different dynasties competed for power. The design of kasbahs placed more emphasis on practicality than aesthetics. Kasbahs provided protection against various adverse elements, such as an outside enemy, severe weather, and drought. 

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Kasbah living (clockwise from left): Kasbah Amridil (fortified house); Kasbah Amridil from inside; the oldest kasbah in Morocco; Ait Benhaddou (fortified village)- the site of filming of many movies such as Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
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Kasbah living: Kasbah Oudaia (fortified village), Rabat. 

The inside of this kasbah stores a very nice surprise once you walk in. The old, stoic exterior gives way to refreshingly chic interior and is a great example of Moroccan culture infused with European influence. These photos do not do justice to how beautiful a walk down the meandering lanes of this kasbah really is. 

Palaces

The Royal Palace of Fes, or Dar-el Makhzem, is a 17th century palace that is still used as the residence of the royal family when they are in the city. As a consequence, the palace is off limits to public. 

The word ‘bahia’ in Marrakech’s Bahia Palace means beautiful in Arabic. It was built by Morocco’s grand vizier Si Moussa in 1860s, although additional features were added by his slave (who later made himself the vizier) Abu Bou Ahmed.This final version of the palace was supposed to house Ahmed’s four wives and 24 concubines. 

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Palaces of Morocco (clockwise from left): Stunning brass door handle at the Royal Palace, Fes; Royal Palace in Fes (entry is not permitted inside); brass gate in full glory; Bahia Palace, Marrakech; ornate detailing on Bahia Palace’s exterior
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Bahia Palace, Marrakech
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Bahia Palace, Marrakech. Clockwise second photo from left: Riad, or courtyard, of the palace. A ‘riad’also means garden, greenery, or richness in Arabic and Saudi Arabia’s capital ‘Riyadh’ takes its name from this particular term.

Funduqs (Caravanserais)

A funduq was another type of ancient building frequently found in Morocco. It was used as a commercial as well as a residential property by merchants visiting a city. The bottom floor functioned as a store whereas the upper floors were reserved as residential quarters.

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The Nejjarine Complex (Funduq), Fes
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The Nejjarine Complex (Funduq), Fes

Throughout Morocco, the most stunning and unique examples of buildings I came across were from the Marinid dynasty. The Marinids were a Berber dynasty that ruled from 12th to 14th century in Morocco. Their buildings are distinguished with elaborate carvings in plaster, zellij (tilework) and generous use of cedar wood. The amalgamation results in a resplendent form of architecture that is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. 

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Madressa Bou Inania, Meknes
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Carvings in plaster are utilised lavishly, not just in Marinid architecture but even in buildings proceeding that period. 
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Exquisite cedar wood carving
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Madressa Al-Attarine, Fes
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Food

The mainstay of Moroccan cuisine is couscous and tagine, and they come in a lot of variety. Do try their harissa (chilli sauce), harira (chickpea soup), pastilla (sweet-savoury pie), and camel meat. FYI if you are a vegetarian, you will not be let down by the local cuisine. Moroccans are not raging meat eaters, despite popular belief. This is mainly due to the cost of meat being high and the average family size still being large by many people’s standards (around 5 children!)

Try these drinks: mint tea, nous nous coffee (means half coffee, half milk), avocado-orange juice, Hawaii® tropical juice (commercial drink with soda), panache tropical juice (freshly made fruit juice in restaurants)

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Morocco Feed (clockwise from left): vegetarian couscous; vegetarian appetisers spread; chicken pastilla; berber eggs; standard breakfast fare; harira (chickpea soup); chicken tagine. Centre image: camel meat burger
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Morocco Feed (clockwise from left): Homemade harissa paste (red chillies, lemon, garlic) from a Berber family in M’Goun Valley; mint tea; Hawaii tropical drink; street food with panache tropical drink on extreme left at Djmaa el Fnaa, Marrakech; cactus fruit (another street delight); orange-avo juice

Medinah and souqs 

Medinah refers to the old part of a city and souq is a market, which is commonly found inside a medinah. A stroll through the souq can be quite an experience, which will feel like a sensory explosion. A souq sells all sorts of things that are required in everyday Moroccan life- clothes, food, groceries, accessories, home items, you name it. However, each craft has its own section inside a souq, such as the brassware section, the leather section, the ceramic section etc. There are convoluted little maze-like lanes in which you can get blissfully lost (or frustratingly lost if you have less time on hands). You will get persistent shopkeepers calling you out in Arabic or French to look at their wares and if you decide to go in, there will be plenty of haggling involved. 

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Souq inside Fes medinah
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Souq inside Meknes medinah
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Souq inside Marrakech medinah

My Moroccan Adventure- practical aspects part 2

In this blog, I will discuss some of the aspects of Morocco you need to bear in mind once you arrive there such as: 

  • Shopping 
  • Female travellers (clothing, safety and gender interaction)
  • Cultural quirks

Shopping

Morocco is a delight when it comes to shopping and the old markets (souqs) in Fes and Marrakech are especially not to be missed. Fes medinah (old part of Fes, which has its famous souq) is actually the biggest of its kind, with 4,000 streets and 90,000 dead ends. 

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Moroccan carpets and leather bags. Image courtesy: www.trekearth.com & www.thejigsawpuzzles.com

The small medinah space is shared by many people, mules, shops, mosques, and eateries. The clamour generated as a result of this congestion results in a very animated atmosphere.

I have mentioned some popular souvenirs from Morocco, and where possible included the shop from where I bought these souvenirs. Our tour guide provided access to some really high-quality goods, so the prices were slightly higher than market but it was worth it. In all the places that we went, we were provided with a tour in English detailing the processes that are involved in making these products.

  • Carpets
  • Leather: Chouara tanneries, or the famous Fes tanneries
    • The smell is highly offensive, but mint leaves (handed out on arrival) provide some relief
  • Brass
  • Ceramics: Serghini Maitre Potier et Zellige Fasi, Fes
  • Argan oil: La Caravane Des Epices in Ouarzazate
    • This is a herbal store with an English speaking herbalist giving demonstrations on the uses of various medicinal plants in Morocco
    • The village of Aguelmous near Tizi N’Tichka pass also has a women’s Argan oil cooperative (Cooperative Feminine Arfa), which sells authentic argan oil products handmade by the local village women. 
  • Kaftans: Weaver’s cooperative, Fes
  • Djellaba (traditional Moroccan dress, pronounced as ‘jelaabaa’): Weaver’s cooperative, Fes
  • Silk: Weaver’s cooperative, Fes

These souqs are a great place to buy anything traditional Moroccan. But you do need to haggle really hard. Some people love the challenge of it and that is great because it is an expected part of the culture. For the rest, try not to get flustered and take it all in stride.

My tips for souqs:

  • The souqs can be really tempting, especially with the shopkeepers being very persistent. And because you are on a holiday, watching your finances would be a worry far far away. But to avoid overspending, make a list of what you would like and for who and stick to it.
  • You will be sold the goods at a higher price than the locals, but haggling will still bring the price down slightly.
  • When haggling, start at 50% of the stated price. And look and feel confident.
  • Learn some common Arabic words and phrases as many Moroccans are not fluent in English. Especially know basic numbers that you can use during haggling.
  • Do not get too worked up if the shopkeeper does not agree to your price after a few attempts. Just try to enjoy this unique experience- you can either pay him/her or continue at another store.

Malls in Morocco are another great place to shop if you are after Western style clothing and apparel. Morocco has good fashion due to its proximity to Europe, and a number of French brands such as ‘Camaieu’ can be easily found. The prices are also much cheaper compared to Australia. Special mention to the brand ‘Marwa’, which is being heralded by fashion critics as Morocco’s Zara. Supermarkets such as ‘Acima’ and ‘Carrefour’ can be used to buy Moroccan spices and other groceries unique to Morocco.

Female travellers

Clothing

As far as I know, by law, there are no dress restrictions on women. However, by culture women in Morocco are expected to dress conservatively compared to their western counterparts. This dressing expectation goes for men too by the way- you will not find a man in Morocco dressed in shorts and singlets outside his home. But, this by no means should be interpreted as a threat to be covered from head to toe, or else. 

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These are the types of outfits you may find women wearing in Moroccan cities. About half the women cover their head with hijab (Islamic headscarf), the other half do not. The face covering (niqab) is hardly seen in both cities as well as villages. And you can see that the above outfits can be easily worn without covering one’s head too. Image courtesy: www.hautehijab.com & www.hijabworld.com

Dressing in winter is easy. Just layer up with long sleeved tops, jumpers, coats, whatever to make yourself feel warm. There is no obligation to wear a scarf, but you can wear it to add extra colour and warmth to your outfit. I saw plenty of women wearing skinny jeans in Morocco, so I suppose with bottoms one can wear something tight. If the bottom is tight, then just make sure that your top comes past your hips (it is considered culturally appropriate to cover the hips and chest with something loose- loose top, scarf, skirt or really loose pants).

Summers might be a bit tricky because it can get quite hot in Morocco and you can’t exactly walk around in shorts or miniskirts (unless you fancy unwanted attention). To keep it real, you can wear a loose T-shirt or a top, coupled with a long skirt or loose pants. Alternatively, wear a maxi dress that can be dressed up or down depending on where you are headed in Morocco.

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Some inspiration for summer clothing in Morocco. Make sure to take sandals that cover your feet well to protect them from dust. Image courtesy: www.pinterest.com www.guardian.co.uk

Make sure your shoulders and upper arms are covered well, and that there is no sign of cleavage.

I have heard conflicting reports regarding whether in summer women should cover their arms fully or halfway. I am not sure on this one as I travelled to Morocco during winter. But just to be on the safe side keep a long sleeved thin jacket or cover up with you. 

In rural settings, there is not much variety in terms of what women tend to wear. Every woman I met wore a djellaba (Morocco’s traditional dress) along with a hijab. Djellaba basically is a long loose cloak with a hoodie attached and looks something like this:

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Rural women in Morocco wearing djellaba. Image courtesy: www.advocacynet.org

Djellabas are quite comfortable and are worn in the cities as well. It is not a gender specific dress and men are equally fond of them. It is especially comfortable when winters are being brutal. 

Keeping the  conservative rural mindset in perspective, it might be a smart idea to avoid tight clothing altogether when you are in a village. Wear full sleeved clothing, if possible. However, scarf is still optional. Villagers will be one of the friendliest people you will meet and I was even invited inside the kitchen of one of the families to witness their food being prepared. But remember, these people have not been exposed to different cultures too many times, so if they feel some sort of connection with you- even if it is over modest clothing- they will find it easier to open up to you and you will become intimate with a part of Morocco that not many people get to experience.

Interaction between genders

While Morocco is not a restrictive as Saudi in terms of gender interaction, it is still a relatively conservative society. I was not there long enough to understand the gender dynamics within different age groups and different socioeconomic classes, but as a female traveller, I would definitely advise other female travellers to avoid getting too friendly with the men, as it would be interpreted as a sign of interest. Just stick to the main conversation and once you have exchanged the information you require, you do not have the obligation to continue the conversation. Otherwise, you will be surprised how quickly a simple aimless conversation will turn into requests for your phone number or email address or facebook ID. 

Safety

I would like to begin the section with this disclaimer: if a man is a pervert, he will harass any woman he pleases- conservative clothing is not a deterrent. Moroccan women get catcalled by men, even the ones that are dressed quite modestly i.e. wearing a hijab (Islamic headscarf) so to speak.

But in all honesty, I found Morocco to be safe for women. I have been out on the streets of Fes, Casablanca and Marrakech at night by myself and it was fine. I have seen women out at night alone taking public transport by themselves. Yes, there have been instances of catcalling but they were merely small annoyances in my otherwise amazing trip.

There is indeed a big range in terms of how different female bloggers feel about the harassment issue. The main point they are all making is that confidence helps a lot. If you are feeling unsafe but stay confident, then you will know where to draw the line. You will know when to talk back firmly or walk off or draw attention to yourself for help.  But obviously, normal travel precautions apply. Please do not venture into quiet, dim lit areas whether you are by yourself or in a group. And if you plan on staying out till late at night, the make sure you are with a group and know how to get back.

Cultural norms and some quirks

Morocco has these cute little ‘cafes’ which actually are tea/coffee houses, where traditionally men sit inside and outside all day around sipping mint tea and generally just chit chat. As a woman, it can be very confronting entering these tea houses as the men inside seem a bit territorial. Don’t get me wrong: there was no harassment, but I did feel as if women were not welcome there. I never spotted any women inside or outside the tea houses during my 15-day trip there and upon consulting our group leader, he did mention how it was culturally inappropriate for women to enter such places. Apparently, in olden times women used to entertain their friends inside their homes as their movement was restricted. Even though these days, women can be seen freely walking everywhere in Morocco, the tea house tradition has still continued. There are plenty of ‘regular’ cafes in Moroccan cities, where everyone is welcome. 

  • morocco men's cafe
  • Smoking is allowed inside buildings in Morocco.
  • Street names can either be in French or Arabic, and many streets do not have any names at all. Try to remember directions using landmarks instead.
  • Moroccans DO NOT like being photographed. If you do want to do some street photography, make sure it includes people in general as a part of a crowd and not specific individuals. Do not especially take photos of women without asking them first.
  • The lower and middle range hotels may not match up to the Western standards in some areas, such as hot water not being available 24×7, no room service, not enough towels, no hairdryers….Now I didn’t encounter a hotel that lacked ALL of these features but let’s just say that as long as you expect a basic level of amenities and come prepared, you should be happy. 
  • Whilst I didn’t get a chance to do it: try their hammams.Apparently, you get naked and two women scrub you squeaky clean, so much so that one person could see dead skin getting removed from their body in the form of coils.

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    Hammam in Morocco. Image courtesy: www.lonelyplanet.com

    It sounds quite rough but I’ve always heard it being a very exhilarating experience. These hammams range from very basic ones where the locals go to very expensive ones, with various spa treatments included.

  • Tipping is an integral part of Morocco. Any service you get- please remember to tip. Generall 10-20% of the total bill in a restaurant will be considered a proper tip. If you are unsure as to how much to tip, you can always take advice from your hotel staff or your tour guide. One word of advice: if you forget to tip, Moroccans will not create a fuss, but they will feel belittled if you tip really less.

My Moroccan Adventure- practical aspects part 1

Unlike many others, on my first ever trip abroad, I decided to venture out to Morocco. The country provided me with exciting opportunities for culture exploration, photography as well as adventure. With beautiful architecture, stunning landscape, mouthwatering food as well as a composite culture, it was hard to say no to this small country nestled snugly on the west coast of Africa.

Surprisingly, I had a lot of people ask me about Morocco’s location. I think it was one of the most frequently asked questions of me. To all those people, who do not know where Morocco is: 

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If you do not know where Morocco is, have a look at this map to figure out its location. (Surprise! It is not in the Middle East amidst war-torn nations). Image courtesy: www.library.illinois.edu

Reasons to go to Morocco:

  • Culture, history
  • Stunning landscapes 
  • Architecture
  • Food
  • Friendly people
  • Trekking

In this blog I will be discussing some aspects that you need to consider before you get to Morocco:

  • Important packing tips
  • Money advice
  • Information about Moroccan languages, including some common words

Practical packing

I found these items to be quite useful whilst travelling through Morocco. Some are winter-specific (I went to Morocco in peak winter), whereas others are more general. 

  • Money belt or something similar to store cash and card
  • Rain jacket or portable umbrella (it rains during winter in Morocco)
  • Good quality sneakers or boots that can withstand the intensity of hiking you will be undertaking
  • Winter coat (the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert can be extremely cold)packing
  • Washing brush and detergent (if going rural. Cities have laundromats but rural areas do not. Also laundromats can be expensive- 10 to 30 MAD per item).
  • Try this Aussie washbag invention: it cleans your clothes on the go, 2x better than handwashing! Read its review here: http://adventuresoflilnicki.com/scrubba-washbag-review/
  • If you like Scrubba, you can order it from https://thescrubba.com/collections/all
  • Portable clothesline if you must
  • Spare camera battery (you will be taking lots of photos as Morocco is very picturesque)
  • Toilet paper (restrooms in restaurants and some lower-mid range hotels won’t necessarily have them as they use water)
  • iPod (Morocco was strangely lacking in music everywhere we went)

Money matters

Morocco’s currency is called Moroccan dirham (MAD). 1 MAD = 100 centimes. Morocco only uses Euros, Pounds and American Dollars for exchange so if you are going from Australia, you will need to exchange AUD to any of the above-mentioned currencies and then convert the currencies into MAD upon arrival. 

Otherwise, you can ask Travelex and the likes to order you MAD up to a certain amount. You can then carry this amount straight to Morocco, but ordering MAD takes some time as it is not a common currency. Besides, you will get more if you are converting from Euros to MAD rather than from AUD to MAD. 

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Moroccan dirhams and centimes. Image courtesy: www.moroccoonthemove.com

For my 15 day trip, I took out Euros worth 400 AUD and got it exchanged to MAD upon arrival at Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport. At the time of writing this blog, 1 AUD was roughly equivalent to 7 MAD.

ATMs are widely available in larger cities, so you can take money out as you go. If you are planning to go rural, then make sure you take out enough money in advance because obviously villages will not have ATMs. Credit cards (or credit-debit cards) are readily accepted in modern shopping avenues (such as a mall or a modern chain store, cafe or restaurant similar to the western world). Other places (small shops, roadside eateries) prefer cash. Another thing: tipping is a vital part of the Moroccan culture. Therefore, it is always a good idea to have enough cash on oneself. 

Language

The main languages spoken in Morocco are Berber, Arabic, and French. Moroccans are not fluent in English, so learning a few common words and numbers in Arabic and French should be on your ‘to-do’ list before you go. It will definitely come in handy, especially when you are stuck and want to ask for assistance (in hotels, in stores or on streets), or haggle in the souqs (old markets). It is interesting to note that the more ‘elite’ an establishment is, the greater are your chances of hearing French being spoken. Whereas in more ‘humble’ places, Arabic is given preference. 

Arabic comes in a variety of dialects and it is no surprise that Morocco has its own. It is called ‘Darija’. I am listing some common words I picked up during my stay in Morocco:

  • Hello = Assalaamu alaikum (peace be upon you, to be exact)
    • Respond with ‘Walaikum assalaam’ (and upon you be peace) 
  • Goodbye = Massalama 
  • Good night = Layla sayeeda
  • Yes = Naam
  • No = La
  • Thank you = Shukran
  • Let’s go = Yallah (you will hear this a lot)
  • Quick = Balagh (you might hear this in the medinah, or old city, where a local might be urging his mule to walk faster)
  • How much = Shahal
  • That’s it = Safi
  • Bon appetit = Bassaha

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Community building in the village of Sefrou. The sign is in Arabic, Berber and French.