Morocco. Moments.

Morocco. A nation in North Africa with a population of over 33 million. We decided to join our best buddies Ben and Mary on an 8-day adventure trip across various destinations in the country. Our first stop was Casablanca. Dee and I arrived two days before the start of the group trip, giving us the opportunity to discover the Old Medina. A maze of concrete shelters, inns and shops within ancient walls, the narrow streets showcased vendors selling everything from traditional cloth to knock-off LVs’, from leatherwear to gold-bling, from citrus fruits to fresh meat.

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There was much to see in the medina. The experience was entertaining enough until a deranged woman decided to stalk us and tried endlessly to photobomb at point-blank wherever we pointed our cameras. We shook her off by ducking into an old-style coffee shop across the street where we had chocolate croissants and mint-tea. It was a pleasant relief. Not long after became aware that Dee was the only female amongst numerous coffee-guzzling and cigarette-puffing men. Come to think of it, of all the coffee shops we passed that morning, we did not notice any ladies delighting in java. This had nothing to do with law nor taboo, Moroccan women just do not customarily drink at coffee shops.

Dee insisted that we try the public transportation, just to observe what the locals experience in their daily lives. A random hop on a tram from Casablanca’s main square ended at Ain Diab, a wide stretch of beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There is no apparent beach culture at Ain Diab. On a comfortable sunny 17 degrees-celsius afternoon, the few people stripped down and sun-bathing were men.

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Dee and I walked the length of shore. A woman in her long loose red dress billowing in the spring breeze. Boys on ponies offered rides to unsuspecting tourists. The atmosphere was tranquil, broken only by crashes of rolling waves, the beach felt exclusively ours. A couple stood a distance away at the waters edge, their gestures and body-movements discretely suggested that love was in the air.

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It was on the second day that we met up with Ben and Mary. A 20-minute vigilant walk together from our hotel through some decaying areas of the city had us at the Hassan II Mosque. Truly a mirage in comparison to the surrounding environment, the modern establishment of worship was built in the early ‘90s of Moorish architecture.

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Later that afternoon, we got to meet with other members of our tour group. Two doctors from Germany, a couple from South Africa, two law-students from Australia, a bachelor from Norway, a retiree from San Francisco, a French-Canadian couple, and a pair immigrant couples from Toronto (that would be us). The group could not have better represented people of nations that typically enjoy travel. Our tour guide extraordinaire went by the name of Abdul, a Moroccan of Berber descent. A husband and father of a four-year-old son, Abdul was a very knowledgeable, multi-lingual, uber-talented and caring tour leader.. someone who we all loved and found most difficult to part with by the end of our journey.

On the way to Fez, ancient Roman ruins could be encountered at Volubilis. Is there no spot on the face of this earth that had not been established by the Romans? Beautiful, intricate floor-tile mosaics are well preserved yet exposed to the elements under the bright mediterranean sun.

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Another stop along the way was the imperial city of Meknes, founded by Sultan Moulay Ismail dating back to the 17-th century. Thick fortress walls stood, once functioning as stables, granaries, and sanctuary to a shrine believed to be for a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.

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Interaction between the tour members intensified along the journey. Stories were exchanged, cultures explained and languages gained. We learned the arabic word “shukron” to express gratitude. We lifted our glasses to the berber phrase “bisaha!” while encircling a campfire in the Sahara. “Mumtaz” meant “perfect” or “excellent”. While “ranger”, pronounced “rangaah” - *think orang-utan* - was Aussie slang for “red-head” - someone with read hair.

On the day we visited Fez (or Fes), the country’s cultural capital, we walked through the marketplace that was way more exotic than any we encountered on our trek. We passed shopfronts that sold everything from logs of nougat to camel-head, literally hanging in front of a butchers display. Within the walled city was a madrasah, or school for moslem discipline. We were given out mint stalks at the tannery.. not to submerse into our teas.. but to hold to our noses to conceal the pungent odour of the pigeon-poop and manure they use to process the raw leather. The mint did not prove to be an effective air-freshener.

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Further into the souk, or marketplace, through a door off a narrow lane, were four flights of stairs leading to a multi-storey restaurant. I thought of how contrast the setting was between the relatively stylish eatery as opposed to the surroundings outside the walls of the restaurant. I was sure most locals passing the winding streets of the medina had never stepped foot inside the bistro. Food was abundant throughout our trip, and it was in Fez that I had my initiation to tajine, a North African dish slowly cooked and served in an inverted cone-shaped clay pot, consisting of meat and veggies with seasoning of turmeric, saffron, cilantro and coriander. Other local dishes savoured along the journey among others were Charmoula, Pastilla, Kebab, and Couscous. Almost always washed down with sweet mint tea, the beverage is sensationally poured from a pot at arms-length from the glass or cup.

The highlight of our trip was the overnight stay under tents in the Sahara. To get there, we rode on dromedaries, one-humped camels, floating past sand dunes that produced wave-like silhouettes under the setting sun. The scenery was to die for. The pain in my crotch killed me.

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Casbah. or Kasbah. Definition: a castle or palace in North Africa. We came to one at Ait-Ben-Haddou. A fortress ascending and perched on rock-cliffs. I swear I could have walked through a scene from “The Game of Thrones” at this UNESCO World Heritage site. Looking up from below the rock-face was exhilarating. The landscape from atop the elevation was invigorating.

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A tour of Morocco is not complete without the visit to Marrakesh (Marrakech). Our last destination seemed the most advanced and western-influenced city on our trip. Outside the boundaries of the immense marketplace that sold textiles, pottery and snake-charmers allure were store-fronts claimed by the good Colonel Sanders and Ronald the Clown.

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It was in Marrakesh that our merry band of wanderers shared our last supper and sadly parted ways. We toasted Abdul with our appreciation and admiration. Facebook invitations were distributed and accepted. Affectionate hugs  unabashedly exchanged. Morocco had been a wondrous blur. So much to take in, so little time. May the magical moments forever last in our memories. May the friendships persevere and flourish. Morocco. Mumtaz!

March 2016

© Prakoso Sastrowardoyo 2012