Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A traveller's view of Morocco

Viv von der Heyden, two of her sons aged 18 and 23 and her mom proved that three generations can travel very companionably together. They ventured around Morocco in April, self-driven in a small hired car, by bus, by train and by grand taxi, covering close on 3000kms in 21 days.

Bab Boujloud, Fez

"We met with such friendliness as soon as we mentioned that we were from South Africa. Even if our conversations were restricted to a few words: Bafana Bafana, Mandela and vuvuzela!”
The family comes from Fish Hoek near Cape Town where Viv co-owns the local community website http://www.scenicsouth.co.za. Here is Viv's report of her travels.

For me, Marrakesh always conjured up visions of market stalls, marijuana and maudlin hippies. Fez was a fuzzy and nebulous notion of an exotic fabled city. Morocco was never on my bucket list. In fact, I knew very little about it.

I am wiser now. A three week trip throughout Morocco with two sons temporarily overseas and desperate after a harsh Northern hemisphere winter for sunshine, good surf and Safricans, and a septuagenarian mom always ready for adventure, has made me so. Yip, marijuana there was... but not only in Marrakesh; the few hippies seemed happy and the exquisite carpets of Fez were not of the magical mystical kind. How often our preconceptions are misconceptions!

Morocco is not a desert country inhabited mainly by turbaned Black Africans. It is peopled with black African Africans, Arab Africans, Berber Africans, French neo-Africans and a variety of non-Africans. Much of the countryside is green and fertile. Its cities are vibrant, divided into the old hidden behind ancient walls, and the new and modern. We explored mainly the old, where life continues as it has for centuries - tradesmen and artisans creating or selling their wares from tiny stalls packed along narrow alley ways. The goods sold may not have changed much either- spices, leatherware, kaftans, jellabas, live poultry, rabbits, tripe, fruit, pancakes, carpets, pottery and other finely crafted, finely patterned articles made from clay, wood and metals. In the souqs (markets places) of Marrakesh modernity intrudes as one dodges scooters carrying goods and passengers while in the souqs of Fez, heavily laden donkeys and mules assume right of way.

In the alleys, behind studded doors within doors surrounded by splendid mosaic tiles and intricately carved stucco archways, renovated riads testify to the brilliant craftsmanship of the Moroccan people. One marvels at the time that must have been spent in beautifying the ceilings, walls and internal courtyards of these mansions inhabited by the upper and ruling classes, many of which are now well-run and popular B&Bs.

a doorway in Marrakech

Contrasting completely are the huge kasbahs with their great crenellated walls which once protected the ruling families, their servants and guards and their provisions stored in case of siege. Most famous of these, and most restored, is Ait Benhaddou near Ouarzazate in the desert, used as a backdrop in the film “Gladiators” as well as several other box office hits. Its setting is as enchanting as the buildings themselves.

Ait Benaddhou

The river valleys are richly cultivated by subsistence farmers - fields of onions, wheat and broad beans, herbs and other vegetables, while the rocky hillsides are dotted with tethered goats and sheep, patiently watched over by their owners who might occasionally have a chance of a chat with a neighbour plodding by sidesaddled on his donkey. How different their lives are from ours. I wondered whether I could exchange mine for theirs...I couldn't! I have become too dependent on the accoutrements of my modern, urban South African life and the feminist in me would rebel viciously against washing carpets and clothes in a stream, cooking on primitive stoves, toiling in the fields and raising the family while my spouse drank endless cups of coffee at the pavement cafe with his buddies, morning to nightfall. But, I think I do the men a disfavour- many work long, long hours in their stalls and restaurants vying for the trade of the locals and tourists. Life is not easy in Morocco.

The southern areas are drying up, rivers are not receiving as much water from snow-melt, pastures are overgrazed, forests have been chopped down and it is said that one out of seven beaches have disappeared as a result of gross tourism developments. Morocco is also drowning in pollution – plastic bags, plastic cartons and other garbage litter empty spaces - the scourge of modern civilisation. One has to look beyond this to the beauty of the country and towns. Gorgeous architecture, radiant colours, warm friendly people....I wished I could have had in-depth conversations with our travelling companions in the buses and trains, in the souqs and hotels but English is hardly spoken and my French, Berber and Arabic are non-existent.

Other impressions? The gobstopping weaving of taxis and other vehicles through intersections and in traffic circles in the towns and cities was nightmarish- and yet we always arrived unscathed with our luggage still intact in the boots that did not always close. We did not witness a single accident scene or wreckage. The younger people are dressing like their Western counterparts and using the internet and cellphones as relentlessly as our own youth. Lemon blossoms imbued the air with their fragrance while the oranges were the sweetest we had ever tasted....

It was a wonderful, balmy three weeks (barmy too at times!) and we have all left Morocco with pleasant and precious memories, a good deal richer for the experience. Worth adding to the bucket list!

Photos: Viv von der Heyden

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