My life has very much been centred in the north. My ancestry is entirely northern, I’ve lived in the north, learned of the north through my childhood and beyond. The interest and desire to discover something so utterly different certainly isn’t a new one – I think I have always had a curiosity for tales that extended south, particularly those spanning the belt from Morocco at the most western point across, through Egypt, and into parts of Asia. An entire wealth of different places and peoples and cultures to discover and learn of, likely so very different from what I knew.
Morocco probably fell quickly to the top of my list because my brother had been there, although I remember little of the stories he told me past the camels, which for whatever reason always stuck in my memory. I went in search of an experience different to any I had found before and what I got in return was that to an extent that I couldn’t even have dreamed of.
I will likely forget many things in this account and even more likely is that I still won’t quite be able to piece together everything I encountered. I feel like day to day, I’m still processing the time I spent there, the surreality of it all making it seem almost like a dream as I sit in my quiet apartment in Toronto under the pattering of rain from a cloudy sky.
But, regardless: here is an incomplete account of my time in a truly unique place. And, if you’d like to see a little of what I experienced there, click here to watch a collation of clips I took while I was there.
Arriving jet-lagged and more than a little dazed to the beautiful blues of the riad that would be our home for the week, I felt as though I’d instantly sunk into an entirely new world. My tired body was taken to the hammam spa which, despite the forewarnings I’d been given on what I was about to encounter, certainly woke me up. A brisk woman led me into a room, my basic French aiding me enough that I could understand her instructions. I was to leave all my clothes in one room before I was taken, naked, to a steam-filled chamber.
Before I could warm too much, a bucket of water was thrown at me before she began her liberal scrubbing, mumbling things under her breath now and then that I couldn’t make sense of. She gestured to a pot of something slick and black and pointed to her eyes. I blinked at her, baffled. Was I supposed to put it in my eyes? Not put it in my eyes? I decided the latter.
Satisfied, at least for the time being, she gestured to the wooden-slatted bench at floor level. I understood that I was to lie down and did as instructed. Without another word, she left the room. I lay on the hard wooden bench and stared up at the domed, tiled ceiling. She can’t have been gone for more than ten minutes at most but it felt like a lifetime as I lay under a cloud of steam, very aware that I was lying completely naked in a room in a house full of strangers. Relaxing, the experience perhaps wasn’t, but as the process continued on her return, my skin certainly benefited from it.
I was less alarmed the second and third times she left the room, going through the stages at each step. Get up, bucket of water, vigorous scrubbing, lie down. It didn’t do much for my dazed state, perhaps, but I felt as immediately immersed into the ways of the place as I could have ever been.
When I stepped out of the shower after my scrub-down, the sky was almost dark outside the window. But not dark in any kind of way I was used to but thick with something. The closest thing I could think was like a great mist had settled over the landscape. There was a sound, too, almost like falling rain. Was it raining? I peered through the curved ironwork of the window and determined that the ground was most definitely dry.
The wind picked up over the next hour, the palm trees in the garden nearly pulled horizontal from the force of it. We sat inside and stared out as the storm ravaged. It was only when I rubbed sand from the corner of my eye that I realised what it was – a sand storm.
As quick as it came, it was over, by which time the darkness of night had fallen. A thin layer of sand coated our windowsill but otherwise, there was no sign of what had just passed. We opened back up the doors onto the patio and the friendly neighbourhood newt scuttled back outside.
What I hadn’t taken into account was the many different landscapes of a country like Morocco, of which I was lucky to see a wide selection of. The coastal city of Essaouira felt far more European in style, the city walls that lined the sea reminding me a lot of Dubrovnik’s Old Town in Croatia. The sea breeze was welcome, and the last of its kind that we would feel for the duration of our hot trip, although it also served to carry the smell of the fish throughout the many winding alleys. Men lined up along the walls, knives in hand and fish before them; others, five or six to the task, pushing sailing boats down to the water’s edge. Market stalls tucked into archways of the walls selling handmade wares, quiet compared to up above, where the waves crashed against the rocky shore.
Our guide took us through the many streets and it was my first glimpse into the way of the people of Morocco. He told us of (and forgive me if this account has any missing details) how one of the mosques there played their call to prayers at slightly different times due to the position of a Jewish household in that part of the town. We would be told many times by different guides and people we met, but I was quickly struck by the warmth and sense of community that seems to exist with Moroccans, that goes above religion. There are still Jewish and Christian communities, as well as Islamic, seemingly cohabiting without religious persecution being such an issue as it has been in many other places in the world.
Essaouira was a calm respite compared to Marrakech, a bustling and chaotic city where I was particularly relieved to have the expertise of the guide with us to help navigate. We did a whistle-stop tour of the sights: the beautiful hues of Jardin Majorelle, followed by the exquisite tiling of Bahia Palace, before we would face the most chaotic part of all.
Despite my generally quite good sense of direction, the souks are not something I think I would easily learn to navigate (and I did try). The winding market streets seem to loop in circles around one another, every row packed with stalls stacked floor to ceiling with their wares. It was a relief when we finally found our way out into the main market square where the light was fast fading.
The moon glowed above as dusk settled over the city. But nightfall did not by any means bring about any less life or business to the square. We stood by dozens of lanterns being sold, each lit and burning a candle, glowing against the ground. I gazed around at the cafés lining the perimeter, the stalls stacked with everything imaginable. One cart simply had a live peacock sat atop it, for reasons I could not ascertain.
Different again, would be the journey we began the next day. Out of the city and high up through the Atlas Mountains, beginning our trek towards Sahara Desert.
“All this time the Sahara has lain patiently beyond the peaks of the Atlas biding its moment, and no one has given a thought to it.” - Peter Mayne, A Year in Marrakech (1953)
But we had thought of it, often. The chaos of Marrakech felt like a distant memory as we saw less and less people, stopping here and there in our journey. On a roadside with a view towards Ait Ben Haddou, a man was selling various trinkets while another sat with a snake at his feet. We reached Ait Ben Haddou itself shortly after our stop and spent a few hours exploring the winding pathways up to the top of the the hill with a view over the landscape.
It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, a place where time seemed irrelevant. It could have been present day or it could have been a hundred years earlier, it would seem as though it would be the same. A man walked his donkey down the pathway of the dried up river, the intensive sun giving no relief even as it began to set. We drank mint tea with a view to the below and I felt almost overwhelmed with it all. And we hadn’t even reached the Sahara yet.
A night in Ourrzazate, a particular delight for me given that it is known as the Hollywood of Morocco, to rest and regain our strength for the next part of the journey to come. We were welcomed into a family’s home for lunch that day, the warmth and hospitality of the Moroccan people shining through again with such intensity.
Nothing could have prepared me for the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert, the destination to our many hours of travel through the country. We switched out of the bus into 4x4s in Merzouga and sped into the dunes, hurtling up and over the sand. The sand itself is so rich in colour, almost a burnt orange, compared to what I am used to knowing as sand. So soft, too, your feet being enveloped into it as you sink on every step.
The campsite was beautiful, the common area laden with rugs and cushions around a fire pit that would be lit when darkness fell. Our sleeping tents were more than luxurious, although we didn’t have much time to consider that when we first arrived, as we quickly raced to meet our camels for sunset.
That isn’t a sentence I’d ever thought I’d write, incidentally.
Our little camel trains departed west, towards the setting sun. The camel behind me took a particular liking to me, nuzzling at my leg as we rode. It felt, and still does, like a dream: that I watched the sun set in the Sahara Desert from the top of a camel.
What made it so special, too, was that it wasn’t as though we just visited the desert. We ate dinner in the desert, we danced in the desert, we sat around a fire and listened to traditional drumming in the desert. We slept in the desert. We awoke to watch the sunrise in the desert and ate breakfast on the top of a sand dune, in the desert. I cried in the desert but that might be a story I keep to myself, at least for now.
I sat on top of a sand dune that night and stared out an enormous, glowing crescent moon, with just thousands upon thousands of stars above my head. The world seemed, at that moment, so vast, and myself such a small speck in it. There has been so much world, and so much life, and so it will continue. But this moment here, this was a moment that I experienced and would always have in my memory.
I spent a lot of the long journey back to Marrakech reflecting on the past couple of days. I was lost in my own thoughts, mostly, turning things around in my mind. Even as we stopped in the town of Rissani, walking through the little market there. A place rich with smells, some more pleasant than others, as the spice stalls gave way to the meat stalls. A row of scrawny cats sat gazing up at the meat stall in an otherwise quiet street.
As part of the trip I was on, we were given the opportunity to take part in a guided meditation on our last evening in Morocco. We sat together around the fountain in the middle of the riad and shared our thoughts on our experience there and the trip, and I was struck with how I very clearly wasn’t the only one who had been affected by this immersion into a new world. All of us had some myriad of thoughts or feelings that had been with us for the week, or longer even. The coming together of all of our voices after the week spent in such an incredible place felt so poignant and important.
I returned to Toronto feeling reset and refocused. This year has been an odd one: I’ve frequently felt as though I’m on a ship in a storm, being tossed this way and that, scrambling to find my feet on unsteady decks. Pulling myself out of my normal, my everyday, and into something so very different was the time I needed to set myself the right way up, clear my head, and refocus to where I go next in my life. I’m pleased to say I have just recently secured a full-time, permanent job (me! I know!) and I am very much looking forward to the stability that this new chapter of my life will bring.
I have a lot to process still, a lot of residual thoughts and feelings to navigate my way through. But I’ve come away from my time with a feeling of positivity to the future and what comes next. That, for me, is the power of travelling.
The Logistical Bits, for anyone who might be curious
I flew Air France from Toronto to Marrakech via Paris.
I travelled with a women’s tour company called The Girls Trip.
I stayed one week in Morocco – five of those nights in a traditional riad in Palmeraie, outside of the centre of Marrakech, one in a hotel in Ourrzazate, and one in the Sahara camp. All of this was arranged and covered by the tour.
I visited Essaouira as a day trip only.
I visited over the first week of October; temperatures ranged from roughly a low of 25C to a high of 42C.
If anyone has any other specific questions, do reach out and I’ll do my best to answer!