A Sensory Journey Through Morocco
When I first discovered I would be spending an entire month in Morocco, I remember being excited that I was finally going to step foot onto Africa, a continent I have long wanted to explore. There was also the intrigue to experience life in a highly conservative Muslim country, and a large degree of uncertainty of what travelling with complete strangers would really bring me. It was not long before I realised that beyond my geographical knowledge of Morocco’s location, images of bright colours, snake charmers and of course the expansive Sahara, I knew almost nothing about this North African country (and even less about the people I was to experience it with!).
Morocco is undoubtedly a special place, unlike anywhere I have been before and although I cannot be certain, unlike anywhere else I will visit. It is an assault on the senses, some delightful, some surprising, and some definitely more difficult to adjust to. This is my well overdue (I have been enjoying Berlin too much!) recount of my experiences as a digital nomad in Morocco.
Arriving late in the evening into Casablanca after over 48 hours of travelling, it was all about the touch. From the minute I began disembarking the plane there was no voluntary movement in either direction, you are so tightly packed with bodies, you just have to move forward with the pack so to speak. Queuing for customs is no one’s idea of a good time, couple this with a serious lack of personal space and you are in for an experience to say the least.
In each city there is a Medina, the old town, which is a maze of tightly woven narrow corridors, alley ways and tunnels – which even for the geographically sound can be challenging to navigate. During the day and most of the evening they are overcrowded with people, any multitude of animals, and constant motorbikes zigzagging through it all (being buried in one’s iPhone is not advisable when trying to avoid being taken out in the chaos). Space is something I often tend to forget can be a luxury and also an unknown commodity in many parts of the world, especially coming from New Zealand where we have it in abundance. Not a huge fan of crowds and having a lack of freedom to move, I opted to rise as the sun did enabling me to wander the Medina’s almost without seeing a soul. Not only do you avoid the congestion (and claustrophobia!) and can move around freely you see the Medina in a completely different light, there is a special stillness that one would never expect to experience in an otherwise chaotic confined environment.
Arriving in the final week of Ramadan, the entire city of Rabat was eerily quiet throughout the entire day. The resonating call to prayer that was to become so routine during the latter parts of the month is noticeably absent, only ringing out at sunset to break the fast, and again at sunrise to begin it again. At night with the disappearance of the sun the cafe’s started opening, shop keepers swept their store fronts and unlocked doors, and locals would fill the city with noise until the early hours of the morning. It was quite something else, a city asleep all day and alive at night. Post Ramadan this all reversed and what had be reserved for the darkness returned itself to the daylight hours.
While the call to prayer became second nature and so part of the environment it went almost unnoticed by the end of my month, the sound of car horns did not. Horns are used for every driving purpose you can imagine, and then some.
Lost? Honk twice.
Just because? Hold it down for good effect.
I must admit these noises actually worked in my favour as the unfamiliar right hand driving in Morocco saw me continuously look the wrong way when crossing the chaotic roads (I am sure I even owe a fellow remote some thanks for stopping me in my tracks a more than few times).
Let’s not forget this is North Africa, this is Morocco. The culturally diverse, exotic and incredibly traditional gateway to Africa – as it has been marketed to the world. A country with a strong commitment to its Islamic heritage even with twenty-first century life rapidly spreading throughout the major centres. The preservation of world heritage sites, magnificent mosque’s and other historic places throughout Morocco illustrates the importance heritage and culture have here.
The ancient city of Fes, once called the Athens of Africa, is acknowledged as a world heritage site and is home to the oldest existing and continuously functioning library in the world. Closed to the public due to a current period of restoration, thanks to a very sweet (and kind of cute) security guard, we were able to briefly sneak into the reading room within the library. The enormity of the history was not just etched in the exquisite paneling that lined the room but in the actual aura of the space, it is not something a picture or words do justice.
One can simply not, not mention the stunning northern town of Chefchaouen. Known as the Blue Pearl, this now famous Moroccan town is a vision of blue tones nestled against the edges of the Rif Mountains. There is something special about this place, a calming aura that made me instantly feel at ease and able to relax. Tourism has ultimately had its impact on the small mountain town, however it still oozes charm at every corner in a way I did not experience elsewhere. Without a doubt, rising before the sun and hiking into the mountain range behind the city was worth the effort (even with multiple encounters with wild dogs) – the view in conjunction with the tranquility and the sense of achievement, resulted in an overwhelming feeling that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Wandering through the labyrinth that is the Medina the aromas that surround and often overwhelm the senses are a mixture of freshly baked bread, raw meat, exotic spices and stale sweat. A sensory overload if I ever experienced one.
Not a fan of bread generally, I do love the smell of it baking (who doesn’t!), and Morocco most definitely provides that in abundance. Known as the staff of life in Morocco bread is served with every meal, and is commonly used as both the plate and the fork in some areas. Meals are often served in large dishes for an entire group/family and bread is used to dip, scoop and consume these shared plates.
Speaking of smells, I must mention my visit to the famous Chouara Tannery within the Medina of Fes. The smell can only be described as pungent, almost nauseating, so much so that your guide (a must to be allowed into these tanneries) will offer you a bunch of fresh mint to hold to your nose. My advice – take the mint, it definitely prevented me losing my breakfast.
For me thoughts of Moroccan middle eastern cuisine led me to think of spices, all wonderful varied colours and amazing vibrant flavours. Being notoriously difficult with food (either for health reasons, my new sugar free obsession, or just because I am quite particular) I struggled initially with traditional Moroccan food. My issues were less with the actual food being served, the tajines were aromatic and the cous cous as fluffy as I had ever tried, it was more that I love to cook and craved that familiarity of preparing meals. Discovering Rabat’s only health food store was like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert, I was a kid in a candy store (my snapchat story that morning would no doubt back that up!). Cooking and eating fresh vegetables makes me feel more like myself, and taking the time when living on the road to cook/eat healthy makes so much difference to my overall wellness. Adapting to what is available in season (and ultimately what is in country!) meant I focused my vegetable intake on a lot of aubergine (eggplant for my US friends), tomatoes and green peppers.
For the most part the traditional cuisine is not my preferred way of eating, however my absolute favourite dish (and one I hope to recreate and adapt back home) is a sort of stewed eggplant entree style plate. The spice combination and flavour packed into this simple dish is in abundance, and was a clear standout for me. My gorgeous birthday dinner at the Karawan Riad in Fes encapsulates what Moroccan cuisine at its finest will mean to me. A mixture of cinnamon, cumin, paprika and turmeric (to mention but a few common flavours), hot and cold vegetable tastings (almost tapas like in presentation), followed by an intensely aromatic tajine (which our entire table deemed the best of the month – and god only knows how many Tajine’s were consumed!).
There are no two ways about it Morocco was an experience, some good, some bad (namely the food poisoning that took 5 days of my life!), and some moments that will be forever etched in my memory.
This is the place I left my 9-5 and took to remote work.
This is the place I turned 30.
This is the place 6 strangers became lifelong friends.
This is the place I started my new chapter of life.
This is Morocco.