Morocco: Adventure in the lobby of Africa
Before our trip we read a lot about Morocco. We have become aware that Morocco is a country of great cultural richness, but also of many dangers and obstacles for tourists. Anyway - the decision was made. After months of preparation we welcomed summer, piled lots of stuff in the car and headed for Africa. We planned trip of about ten thousand kilometers and we were wrong - in one month time we passed exactly 9,800 kilometers, and the farthest point of the trip was less than 4,000 kilometers far from Varazdin, or at least four days of drive away.
We passed through the well-known Italy and France, completing the tour of what we have not seen in Spain and Portugal in the past years, and finally came to Gibraltar. Morocco was waiting on the other side.
As we expected, the sudden transition from Europe to Africa was a kind of culture shock, especially because we intended to get to know the true Morocco, and not the one "cosmetically repaired" for tourists. European countries are very diverse, but despite this most fundamental understanding and way of life of the people are very similar, especially after the creation of the European Union. Although the Muslim Morocco clearly has Western influences, a deep foundation of society is set significantly different, resulting in a sense that almost everything in this country can not be according to our perceptions of "normal." Therefore, Morocco constantly pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised us from the first to the last day of our trip.
We made a big circle around Morocco, a distance of several thousand kilometers and include all "standard" tourist destinations like Royal Cities Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Casablanca, the capital of Rabat or the ruins of the ancient city of Volubilis. However, we have crossed the Atlas Mountains, which reach heights of over four thousand meters, and on the other hand visited remote places with very few tourists. We tried as much to have contact with the locals and really get to know their views and way of life. Of course, we took the opportunity to observe the beginnings of the Sahara and sand dunes in the moments when the sun rises above the horizon. Although usually the most visited locations are the most attractive ones, Morocco was an exception.
Rural Morocco - back to the biblical times
In contrast to the large urban areas, rural areas of Morocco without a lot of tourists are far more interesting because there is a tradition very faithfully guarded, without any forced performances for tourists. Everything is such a great and amazing museum of living people and their traditional life. To get into these areas, we went straight from Marrakesh to the highest peaks of Atlas Mountains.
The road is very narrow and dangerous, the traffic was gone as we began to climb. We knew that the 200 kilometers of road length exceedes 2,000 meters of height and passes close to twice higher peaks of Atlas Mountains. In the endless wilderness there are no forests, brown and reddish hue slopes of mountains prevaile. Only sometimes we came across a village with a surprise - all the houses are built of mud and straw, as in biblical times. Villages that have their shape completely fit into the rugged landscape had only one sign of recent times: bright red signs with the word "Coca-Cola".
Out of the few villages in the winding road, only occasionall people run out from the mountain shelters, waving with packages and shouting "Marijuana! Hashish". In such an atmosphere, we saw before a mountain hamlet and fifty men marching straight down the road towards us. Their faces were grim, they shouted more than sung, and we were left with nothing but to park on the side, close the doors and surrender to fate. Strike? Attack? Linc?
None of that. Men were screamingly marching near the car without looking at us, and behind them were a coffin. At the end of the parade were women. It was an "ordinary" funeral.
In the wild, we turned off the main road, which did not seem very comfortable, but ten miles from us was the village of Ait-Benhaddou, which is perfectly preserved from any project of recent times. We turned off the road though, found one very modest but surprisingly very clean small hotel in the village, and we felt relatively safe and comfortable there.
This village, which is now on UNESCO`s World Heritage List, represented the most memorable experience of one place in Morocco. A village like Ait-Benhaddoua is something that can not be seen in Europe. It was so vivid and original that it has been recognized in the film world. Thus, for example, the movie "Jesus of Nazareth" was filmed right here.
Perhaps the most beautiful experience in Morocco we had in a long conversation with the owner of the hotel, Moroccan and Berber, who was talking about himself and life in these areas. Already with 14 years, boys and girls are separated for a few years, only to marrie each other, on the desire of theire parents. So he got married and our correspondent, and his wife, as well as all others in the village, only deal with affairs at home, among which is the most important - making carpets. Experience of the wonderful and incredible stories about the meaning of carpets, which are talking about the wishes and hopes of the local women, as well as a description of many Berber customs, was crowned by one music experience from, for them the usual, local wedding. One would pay tens of euros for imitation of what is possible in the backwoods of Morocco, in their original experience, for free: African drums and singing in the extreme, almost delirious ecstasy untamed emotions. However, it is not particularly desirable to join the wedding party, because it is not a tourist show. We were also advised not to accidentally film people, especially not women.
Objectively looking, old town of Fez, Meknes and Marrakech are most valuable places, and are therefore the most visited ones. It is a world cultural treasure of undeniable value. Walk through Madinah takes you back to the sparkle in the medieval market and still living old crafts. The return here is not fiction, not a museum - these crafts and narrow labyrinths and a huge market serve the same purpose today as centuries ago. Moreover, delivery of the goods by donkeys (cars, due to theire width, can not pass) and poor conditions did not lead to modernization, so the experience is more complete. These labyrinths are interesting obstacles for tourists, because they are completely irregular and tortuous, and cover an area that is almost as large as the whole city of Varazdin. Main Streets do not differ in form from the blind side streets. There are no signs with the street names. However, there is a recommended tactic for successful and rapid exit from the maze that we have learned in a few days: you need to follow the rapid flow of masses of people.
Mass of retailers in these labyrinths sell everything from fruit to furniture. Some neighborhoods are designed for different types of trade, so you can buy slippers in one street, clothes in the other, meat and fish in the third, all for the kitchen in the fourth, jewelry in the fifth. Tourists dealers try to ask for multiple higher prices. However, if you buy carefully and prolong the bargain, then you realize that the prices are much cheaper than in Croatia. Beautiful hand-made bracelets and necklaces for two martens, hand-made and decorated wooden tables for 80 kuna, hand-decorated cups of tea and coffee for 20 kuna, clothing at a bargain price ... The only problem is that most of the goods are scrap kits, so it takes a lot of attention and knowledge to buy something that`s worth on the market.
In some museums and Muslim madrasas one can sometimes experience beautiful interior decoration, typical for Muslim culture. Harmony, vitality and beauty of the area is nearly indescribable. There are imposing facades, beautiful colorful fountains, insoluble and endless labyrinths of very narrow streets ... Cities such as Casablanca and Rabat are mostly modern centers that have lost the charm of the past. Nevertheless, these cities are far from being not to be worth for the visit. In particular, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is impressive not only because of its undeniable beauty, not only due to the fact that it is one of the largest religious buildings around the globe, but also because it says a lot about the social order becouse of construction on which poor country spent a whopping $ 600 million . Also, some small pearls like Morocco Chefchaouen or semi-desert mountain Ouarzazate leave no visitor indifferent.
The heavy hand of the almighty Mohammed VI.
Another travel books from the region:Travelogue Kenya
It was very interesting to watch Moroccans and their social organization. Morocco is an absolute monarchy. In doing so, the king does not rule the country symbolically, it is indeed power in the hands of the current King Mohammed VI. King is, except of secular ruler, also the spiritual and moral authority.
Undemocratic and very strict social system in Morocco is felt at every turn. Flags are flying everywhere conspicuously along the road, and in some major intersections there are fifty and more of them. Many cars and especially buses are decorated with this red flags with a green star. It is similar with pictures of Mohammed VI.: King sitting, standing king, the king drinking coffee, King playing with children, the king in traditional Berber dress ... Sometimes it`s a huge picture of the king placed on the crossroads of major cities. Although chubby and youthful face of Mohammed VI. is somewhat atypical for a king, we were extremely careful not to laugh or not to point a finger at the pictures. The police and the army is ubiquitous. Every twenty miles stop and checking of the cars. At all major intersections is at least one police officer. Heavily armed guards guard the entrance to the barracks as if in every moment you could expect an attack. Crossing the Spanish-Moroccan border is also extensive procedure, involving the fulfillment of countless forms, and it is similar with the formalities in hotels and campsites. However, as is usually the case, in addition to all the police, army, a few times on the street dealers openly offered - marijuana or hashish.
As we slowly got to know the country and its people, we got the impression that a firm rule of the king might not be a bad arrangement for Morocco. It is, in fact, the deeply divided society, and attempt to introduce democratic system would probably soon end up in conflict and in a new dictatorship. Western culture is quietly creeping into Moroccan society and, despite the large number of people that are bitterly opposed, it still dissolves in its foundations. Arabs at the same time accept Western influences while Berbers, indigenous people in North Africa, remain very conservative and consistent to tradition. While we were in Casablanca or Rabat we could see Western dressed women at work at other banks or in stores, in rural areas on the other side of Atlas mountains, where is the predominant population of Berber, women are working exclusively housework. Moreover, women are rarely seen on the streets, and it is impossible to see them in bars and restaurants. All this is Morocco, a country that is fundamentally very different from the Croatian and Europe.
Country of inconveniences and real danger
If you are intrigued with these descriptions, you definitely need to read about the negative aspects of travel to this country. For example, a big disappointment in Morocco was a ban for non-Muslims to enter the mosque. Experience of the city is, therefore, annoying and seriously depleted. When we left from Turkey, where the mosque have exceptional artistic value, in Morocco their tour downs to looking of tourists from the entrance, to maybe see some of their interiors. Morocco is in practical terms "tough" for travelers. Because of the many inconveniences and pitfalls that lie in front of strangers, journey into the land still belongs to the sphere of somewhat risky adventures.
Facing countless diversity is often extremely irritating and frustrating. Paying parking to unmarked people so you do not know whether this is their job, constantly refusing terribly persistent petty traders and illegal guides who endlessly hount foreigners, completely wild chaotic traffic with almost no rules whereby all drive aggressively and honk, useless English and German language in a country where most everyone speaks only Arabic and French ... And this is Morocco.
This country is known for a very strange and awkward but unique appearance - illegal tourist guides. In fact, while walking the busy Madinah, local man joins and starts talking about where you pass, this sweet new friend - suddenly starts asking for money for the service of a guide. And that does not require a small "fee" and you can be sure that the place where he stood and demanded money has conditions and means to enforce payment of "debts". One somewhat depressed American couple we met payed to "guides" in Casablanca about 400 kuna. However, if you are aware of the dangers ahead, and if you ignore it and politely refuse all "guides" which keep poping up for you in larger cities, there should be no major problems.
Most unpleasant and dangerous trap for tourists are still incredibly low hygienic conditions prevailing in Morocco. Nowhere so far in any country in which we were we have not seen as terribly poor and dirty toilets as in Morocco. Toilets are rare. "Cleaning" is regularly reduced to the abundance of water splashing, and the toilets are regularly smelly and dangerous morass of lurking disease. Very carefully choose where to stay, because Morocco is rich dirty hotels. In smaller towns with no common European tourists, sometimes there are no hotels which offer clean rooms, so you should carefully plan a trip so you dont get "stuck" in a place where the unused white sheets and pillowcases are inaccessible luxury.
But probably the biggest threat to tourists is the food and water we consume. Living in a significantly worse conditions than the Europeans, the local people are likely to be much tougher on the impurities. Therefore, the risk of food poisoning in Morocco is constantly threatened. Poor refrigerators and frequent power cuts are extremely dangerous, especially for the ice cream. Butchers and fishmongers at markets have refrigerators, so their meat and fish serve as baits for endless swarms of flies. There is no doubt that the same meat and fish are later served in many restaurants. Tap water is generally not good, and its quality varies, so it is best to drink only bottled water. However, that`s not always safe. It is often the case namely that individuals earn by pouring tap water in empty bottles, which they later sell to tourists.
Between Europe`s wealth and African poverty
Dealing with poverty of this country is also lifetime experience. Although a variety of decorations, at least for tourists, is trying to hide the impression of poverty, it is everywhere apparent that this is a country which is much poorer than the Croatia. The biggest problem in the country is enormous birth rate, which results are the inability of employment of so many young people, and it is estimated that one in three able-bodied young Moroccans are unemployed. Cars are rare. Very poor transport infrastructure is still quite sufficient for the sparse traffic on the roads. Even entry to Casablanca (according to some estimates, there are five million people), according to traffic density gives the impression of much smaller city.
Most of the traffic, except pedestrians, are cyclists, motorbikes and, of course, ubiquitous carts pulled by donkeys. On the roads there are taxi drivers whuch operate in ancient Mercedes vans, transporting passengers over long distances. In once luxurious cars, it is common practice to load up to a dozen people, and then the whole scene, with a mix of luxury and misery seems bizarre. And everything else - from medical care to the Moroccan passport, with which it is difficult to travel - makes Morocco the country where we would not want to live. Meeting such a poverty, we became consciousness of how much is actually, on a global scale, Croatia rich and promising country. However, that`s not the real truth about the world`s wealth and poverty.
Several times we were talking to tourists which gained quite a different impression on Morocco`s richness. They are not from Europe, but have traveled from the depths of Africa, usually from the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania. From such a perspective, Morocco is relatively developed and rich country, in fact - a leader in the region. We understand that Morocco compared to Mali and Mauritania, especially to Niger and Chad, is realy a promised land. Therefore, as we have been shocked by Morocco`s powerty, it`s actually just a foretaste of far more severe poverty of "real" Africa. Dealing with poverty breaks our fixation solely on the richest countries in Europe and America. Croatia is still "lagging behind" the West, and more or less manages to emulate their standards. Countries like Morocco long ago began to fade, while yet other countries are all the way to the distant South Africa`s standard. Even relatively wealthy neighboring Algeria is sinking into civil war and general insecurity.
Travel to Morocco is therefore a great experience when viewed from many perspectives. Meeting new entirely different cultures, especially Berber tribes that have remained relatively preserved from Western influences, exploring the Moroccan history and controversial figures such as extremely cruel but successful generals Moulay Ismail and magnificent buildings that were left behind, seeing extremely valuable still extant medieval medina Royal Cities, a deeper understanding of the Islamic world and its problems, coping with great poverty in a country where there is no freedom of speech... All this is Morocco, regardless whether the experience of diversity is pleasant or unpleasant, amazing or bizarre, journey to this country has been a great personal enrichment and life experience.