Morocco: Highlights and Challenges from a Western Traveler's Perspective
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
People, tea, colors, food -- there are so many wonderful things about this culture, as well as a few drawbacks...
As the plane prepares to lift off the hot Moroccan tarmac and embark on its skyward journey, I sit here with a heart brimming with gratitude. I was lucky enough to spend three weeks here. Three weeks to explore some of the cities, mountains, coastline, and desert that make up this country´s rich geography. Three weeks to acquaint myself with the warm-hearted Moroccan people, to learn some of their customs, salivate over their food, and wander their streets. I have fully enjoyed my time here, challenges and all. Here I will share my favorite things about the culture, as well as some of those challenges Franklin and I worked through. Highlights
Even when we camped in the desert for 2 nights, with supplies carted in via camel, we had a proper tea setup. Three glasses, a lovely-looking tea kettle, tea and sugar all atop a silver platter—these things are an uncompromisable necessity for a Moroccan. Three times a day we put that set to use, languidly sipping tea while lounging on a blanket in the sand, tea before breakfast and after dinner. It seems like just as we reached a mild level of exhaustion from trudging over sand dunes and great patches of gravel, out came the propane tank and the tea kettle. Along with this culture of tea drinking is a culture of blissfully enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Sure, we have drinking cultures all over the world, but usually the guest of honor is alcohol, which greatly distorts the tone of the ceremony. On the other hand, tea drinking is humble and calming, and connects real humans -- not their alcohol fueled alter-egos.
Igniting a smile in a passerby is incredibly easy here. Franklin and I both had an easy time of saying salam ('we come in peace!') and sending out a smile, and getting a big genuine salam and smile back. It is easy to walk down the street and feel connected to the people here, even in the big cities. There is a refreshing vibe of peace and happiness that we both picked up on. Perhaps its all the tea they drink. Maybe it’s partly due to the market culture or I don’t know what, but it’s very easy to start a conversation here and find things with which a person can relate.
Call to Prayer
Fives times a day, from sunrise until sunset, the megaphones attached to the mosques scattered about the city come alive with the enchanting wailings of the call to prayer. Each man does it differently, some sending out their call over the megaphones for minutes longer than others. If you listen closely you might hear the clearing of a throat, or a conversation in the background. I liked being reminded that I was in a country that takes its reverence for God very seriously. I like the communal aspect of it, calling people to take a break from what they are doing, if possible, and come together for a few minutes of prayer. I don’t like the restrictions to human (especially female) expression that this, like most religions, dictates. But I appreciated the call to prayer. Design Moroccans have really figured out how to make a space feel good. Their design elements incorporate sacred geometry, bright and complimentary colors, high ceilings, lots of potted plants, and lively patterned carpets, cushions, and pillows. It’s hard to not feel comfortable in a place decorated in such a manner.
Food The food was not only filling, healthy, and delicious, but easily vegan. Fresh orange and pomegranate juices abound, delicious smoothies everywhere, (although you need to make sure they aren’t sneaking in that little square package of milk) -- and the tajins! Oh! The tajins! We had a very easy time of finding vegatable tajins (and would make sure they had one before sitting down). We would often order a vegetable couscous as well, and eat the two side-by-side. Franklin and I love spicy food, and luckily every restaurant has a stash of this heavenly chile sauce called hrissa. Love.
The Moroccan salads are a flavorful chopped mix of tomatoes, onions, olives, and sometimes cucumbers. I know there are more vegan offerings that we didn’t even get around to eating!
I love cats! It is written in the Quaran that Mohammed had a cat, so Moroccans love cats too! They are everywhere, and in relatively good shape for stray cats. Moroccans and tourists alike do realize that not all cats are living healthy happy lives, and for this reason some cities are adopting programs like International Animal Rescue, which work with local vets to neuter strays. We saw signs of this in Essaouira, the city with the fattest street cats I have ever seen in my life!
Mildew A lot of these central hostels are over 200 years old. At one point not so long ago, each one was the home for multiple families. Each family would have a room, and share the bathrooms, kitchen, and terrace with the other families of the building. This has nothing to do with why a lot of these places smell very mildewy, other than the fact that they are old, and often the only ventilation are windows which open out to the central courtyard, which might have been partially or wholly capped. On top of that, showers stalls and shower curtains are not really a thing here—the size of the bathroom dictates the size of the shower, meaning water gets everywhere. And tile grout can only hold out for so long. If you are staying in budget friendly hostels, expect to get a dose of mildew every now and then.
Lack of toilet paper As I have heard is the case in Asia as well, toilet paper isn’t wholly available, especially when utilizing a toilet in a cafe or station. Most female travelers I met carried some around with them. The shake-the-drips-off-your-cooter dance is also a an option. As for number 2, (taken from my review of our desert Workaway) "Moroccans wipe with hand and water. Yes, it sounds weird. It’s also way more efficient then wiping with toilet paper, just in terms of getting the job done. I’d wager it’s also better for the environment. After the wiping, hands are washed with soap and water, and all is as new."
Motorbikes Although I have been warned—kamikaze motorbikes are much worse in Asian cities than they are in Moroccan ones—I am still allowed to complain about them. In most of the the big cities you share the narrow and winding streets of the medina with Mad-Max style motorbike drivers, whizzing past you at lightning speed, making a hairpin turn around your terrified body, pinning you against a wall or causing you to jump back, landing in a big pile of cat poop. It is especially terrible in Marrakesh. Don’t let this stop you from seeing this loud and brightly colored city or others like it, but do be cautious.
Exploitation of Animals
Show-monkeys in cages in the square in Marrakesh, carriage horses clopping down traffic-ridden main thoroughfares, donkeys pulling a cart the size of a small house, chickens crammed in cages awaiting their turn at the butchers knife...these are just a few of the examples of the rampant animal exploitation which occurs here.
On our second to last night in Morocco, a Moroccan man we befriended brought us to our first Moroccan bar. A typical bar where ‘bad Muslims’ can drink and smoke, I asked our friend why there were no Moroccan women there. He said, “Moroccan woman is so above this kind of scene, she wouldn’t want to be here, she has her own place she goes to drink with other women.” He then went on to say it would be absolutely inappropriate for her to come to drink here and possibly run into her brother or her father, and that there is a security guard outside to keep Moroccan women out, for that purpose.
Going to a certain bar is just one example of the gender inequality here. According to the World Economic Forum, quoted on eiu.com, “...women continue to lag behind in terms of health, education, professional opportunities and political empowerment.”
Another symptom of this male-dominance disease is the disrespect shown to solo female travelers by certain Moroccan men. I experienced this very little as I had my Franklin buffer to reflect all the sexism, but I met many solo female backpackers who had experienced perverse cat-calling, marriage proposals, and butt-pinches.
I’d recommend you don’t let this stop you from coming here, if you are a solo-female. It really is a great place, and I am sure your educated and liberated presence will be an empowering thing for Moroccan women to see.
So there you have it, highlights and challenges of Morocco. Come here! The good far outweighs the bad!