A haunting melodic prayer awakens you from a deep sleep just before sunrise. The Arabic words echo across the rooftops from speakers, and although visitors like me do not understand them, the local population heeds this call to prayer. They turn towards Mecca, to the East, to pray. This is a morning ritual in Morocco, one that is repeated five times each day. I visited Morocco for a different kind of experience and came away with far more than I anticipated – a spiritual journey that I will never forget.
In older cities like Ouarzazate, people still live like they did one thousand years ago. As our caravan of jeeps passed through the winding roads of the mountainous terrain we saw shepherds tending to flocks of goats and sheep. We passed empty gas stations and saw few cars on the road. (The price of gas is equivalent to ours in Canada.) The people in rural areas travel mostly in carts pulled by donkeys or on foot. There is no government assistance for the poor; families help one another and come up with creative means of earning enough income for food and shelter. Hence the many souks (outdoor markets) spread across the country where locals sell their crafts—handmade leather shoes and slippers, argan oil, pottery, pashimas, and beautiful hand woven rugs.
Very few people go to doctors in Morocco. Instead they visit pharmacies where traditional medicines are sold over the counter, even antibiotics. Farmers, no matter the size of their land, are excluded from paying taxes to encourage farming. Agriculture and tourism are the two biggest money producers, however due to low average rainfalls, the water supply will decrease by 50% in two years, forcing the government to decide which industry to support – agriculture or tourism. Already measures are being taken to replace orange trees with olive trees which require less water to cultivate.
The current ruler, Mohammed the 6th, is slowly but surely introducing reforms to the country. His wife was the first of “first ladies” to unveil and show her face to the people. Mohammed the 6th strongly defends new family laws which give women the same right to divorce as men. This is considered extremely liberal by the many Islamists among the coalition government in a country where men can still choose to have four wives. Surprisingly 30 women occupy seats in the lower chamber of government.
As we made our way to the desert in the heart of Merzouga’s red sand dunes, we drove deeper into Muslim culture. The women in our group remained behind while our drivers filled up at a local gas station. We were not allowed without head scarves. The more popular tongues spoken in Morocco are Arabic and French with a smattering of English. For the most part I found the people humble, respectful, spiritual and earthy. Alcohol is not part of their culture yet they respect ours and so most dining establishments offer wine and beer, with the exception of the traditional Berber home we visited where we sat on cushions on the floor and shared a delicious lunch served in tagines.
The highlight of the trip awaited us in the desert and our drivers raced the jeeps across the dunes to get to the camp first. We would stay there overnight in a Bedouin camp, two to a tent complete with beds and portable toilets. There was no time to change; we dropped our overnight bags in the tent and waited patiently while the camel drivers wound scarves around our heads before making our way to a herd of camels resting in the sand. We were given brief instructions: lean back and hold on when the camel rises or risk getting thrown over his head! As our caravan of camels headed across the dunes, I felt a connection to this ancient land and its people. At any moment I expected to see Lawrence of Arabia bounding across the desert!
It was close to sunset when we dismounted and removed our shoes to climb to the highest point. From the top of a sand dune we had a panoramic view of brilliant blue sky awash in a kaleidoscope of color. The camel drivers posed us with the sun at our backs and took photos to give us a unique memory of this unforgettable experience. Too soon it was time for our procession to mount up and head back to camp. During the night I awoke a couple of times to see the blanket over the entrance of our tent flapping in the wind. It was comforting to know that the camel drivers tending the fires watched over us.
We set out early the next morning for Ouarzazate for an overnight stay in a traditional Riad. Riads are stone structures with a central courtyard that contains a water fountain and plants. As we made our way on foot through the narrow, cobbled streets people came to their doors to greet us and smile. Some of our “neighbors” sold crafts from their homes and beckoned us in. We watched one woman weaving a beautiful, multi-colored rug. Everything is sold on a barter system and the vendors not only expect buyers to haggle over the price, they enjoy it! We were thrilled to learn from our host that Brad Pitt and Ridley Scott had stayed overnight at the same Riad and held a windup party on the terrace overlooking the village!
On the road to Marrakech the next morning we paused for a photo op of the Kasbah of Ait-Ben-Haddou, the fortress which served as a backdrop for Lawrence of Arabia and The Gladiators. The breathtaking views from the winding, narrow road down the mountains were spectacular – we reached altitudes of more than 2260 meters – well worth the trip for photographers and anyone in awe of Mother Nature.
Our final day was spent in Casablanca, a bustling modern city of some four million people. We visited the famous Hassan II Mosque (tourists are not allowed inside) built to accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 on the outdoor terrace. We moved on to Le Sinatra Restaurant for a final lunch on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Mediterranean – and no, the film “Casablanca” was not shot in Casablanca but almost entirely on a Warner Brother’s lot! The movie however helped turn Casablanca into a popular tourist spot.
I have only touched on a few highlights of our 10-day tour to this fascinating country on the North West Coast of Africa. I heard a passing comment that we are far more advanced in the Western World than our host country. We have advanced to the point where we depend on technology and credit cards to get us through life while the old country depends on Mother Nature. We have a long way to go to catch up.
If you can take but one trip in your lifetime, let it be to Morocco. I only covered a small number of pleasant memories from the trip…after all I don’t want to spoil the many surprises that await you! For more information on a tour of Morocco, or if you want help in planning your next vacation, please contact one of the following agencies across Canada, whose Managers/Owners (all winners of the Bravo Club Excellence Award) I had the pleasure of travelling with. Thanks Transat Distribution Canada and Transat Discoveries for this amazing opportunity!
Janet Lace (email@example.com) 1-877-404-9857 (Hamilton)
Claude Lapointe (firstname.lastname@example.org) 613-443-1417 (Embrun)
Marion Rose (email@example.com) 1-888-849-2789 (St. Thomas)
John Wood (firstname.lastname@example.org) 905-260-5646 (Courtice)
Melanie Johnston (Melanie.email@example.com) 1-888-370-8752 (Edmonton)
Denise Luciani (firstname.lastname@example.org) 1-800-440-5303 (Brantford)
Susan Young (email@example.com) 905-723-7726 Ext 2221 (Oshawa)