For me, Morocco is a land of extremes. Even my journey to this beautiful country was rather extreme – I spent a gruelling 36 hours in transit (from Manila to Marrakech via Taipei and Frankfurt). It was, needless to say, worth the trek. In the second last week of February I attended a creative workshop in Marrakech hosted by Seek the Uniq, where a bunch of curious women from different corners of the world came together to learn, connect and to inspire one another. My friend Kim gave a great talk about reigniting passion, and my new friend Arriane challenged us to approach problems in a new way through the application of design theory (Creative Confidence is a great book/introduction to design thinking if you’re interested to know more). We also banded together to explore the ins and outs of a new city.
Step inside the medina of a big city such as Fes or Marrakech, and prepare to be immediately ambushed by a barrage of stimuli. I’d feel a whoosh of air on the back of my neck as bicycles swerved around me, avoiding a collision in just the nick of time. The clang of hammer hitting metal bounced off the walls as artisans huddled together, making silverware in the street. Merchants enticed me into their stalls, ready to haggle over a waterfall of textiles boasting every shade under the sun. I also made some pretty serious eye contact with a cow’s head, hanging at the open air butcher stall, only a few paces away from a boutique packed with leather goods and babouches (slippers) that still carried the fresh scent of goat. A rather rude awakening for us who avoid thinking about the process of making leather.
But venture past the chaos, through the winding labyrinth of high walls and minimum street signage, and you’ll quickly find yourself in an eerily quiet residential corner away from the madness of the markets. I always wondered what was on the other side of those walls. Was it a riad, a mosque or a restaurant? Are the people inside sleeping, laughing, praying, gossiping, or plotting something scandalous? For me, the beauty of the medina greatly lies in the mystery it imparts on the curious wanderer.
After our 5 days in Marrakech, Kim and I bid the rest of the group farewell as we went off to explore some roads less travelled. Enter Youssef – our tour guide, driver and companion for the rest of our Moroccan adventure. From the moment he picked us up from our riad in Marrakech, we knew that having him accompany us was the best idea. Not only did he enthusiastically cover more than 1300km of land with us, but he was incredibly informative, flexible with our requests and unwittingly funny. We spent hours in the car talking, joking, and learning about this beautiful country of extremes. Soon after leaving Marrakech, it became blatantly obvious to me that I had embarrassingly little knowledge about the country I was in. I’d always assumed that the rest of Morocco was just as dry, dusty and arid. After an hour or so in the car, I realised how wrong I was. As we approached the stunning Atlas mountain range, we were surrounded by dense forest (?!) and soon after, snow capped mountains! I’ll never forget the contrast of colours in the landscape – the red (earth), white (snow) and blue (sky).
As soon as we had Youssef talking, it was clear that he was overwhelmingly passionate about the desert. So much so that we decided to change our itinerary and spend a night camping out in the Sahara. Which was the best… idea… ever. I can’t tell you how profound this experience was – you must go to the desert if you visit Morocco. We packed our bags to take what we needed for the night and off we went. Leaving at sunset, led by two Berber guides and carried by our faithful camels, we crossed a stunning golden landscape for an hour to reach our camp site.
When we arrived, it was clear that the only purpose of being there was just to… be there. No signal for mobile phones, no distractions, life stripped back to the very basics. So imagine Kim and I sitting in a tent, in the middle of the Sahara dessert, with these two middle aged Berber men, wondering how we were going to pass the 12 hours ahead of us. After a brief period of awkwardness, we found ourselves exchanging terrible how-do-you-get-a-camel-into-a-refrigerator jokes in broken English, laughing so hard that we were snorting.
I had one of those OMG moments when I realised that good vibes and laughter transcend all cultural and linguistic boundaries. The worlds that we come from couldn’t be further apart, and we barely understood each other, but here we were still cracking up. I also decided there and then, that one of the best gifts you can give someone is your complete, undivided attention. Isn’t it so rare that we are fully present in any situation these days? When did spending a whole evening not distracted and fully in the moment become such a foreign concept?
I was amazed and appalled at the same time when I felt that I had lost so much of what means to be truly human. Why does it have to be awkward when you don’t have the excuse to escape through a gadget in your hands? It’s the ultimate paradox of which I think we’re all aware – the more connected we are on our devices, the less connected we are in real life. How difficult it is to give someone your full attention when you are only one notification away from something else. I try hard to fight this in my life back home but I somehow always get sucked in to regular programming. It’s moments like these that remind me of what it really means to be human.
Somewhere in between devouring some delicious smokey tagine and too many non sequitur jokes, I was coerced into singing Waltzing Matilda to the beat of the tam tams (their local drums). I hope to god that none of this footage ever appears on the internet. Isn’t it funny that music and dance have become a form of entertainment reserved only for those with ‘skill’? I was initially mortified when asked to sing a song from my country. I’m hesitant when encouraged to dance. Why have we become so self conscious?
However, by the end of the night I had loosened up and even acquired a new nickname, Itren, which means ‘star’ in Berber. It must have been the quality of my singing. I was pretty stoked with my new title, especially since Kim somehow ended up with the name “Africa” (emphasis on the aaaah). I’ll take Itren. So there we were, in the middle of the Sahara desert, surrounded by nothing but the Milky Way and the occasional desert fox. I think one of our guides Mohammed summed up my feelings about this experience in a catchphrase that he kept repeating that night: tomorrow is tomorrow, and today is today.
Leaving the desert with a new found appreciation for nothingness and humanity, we made our way to our last stop – the blue city of Chefchaouen. Nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, this incredibly photogenic town is an obvious choice for tourists. Indigo paint transforms the streets into a beautifully dizzying maze of blue. Whilst there are many that sell locally made souvenirs, my most exciting purchase was a kilo of strawberries for one euro! After maxing out our SD cards with photos of all things blue, we capped off our stay with a glass of wine followed by a hammam (a Moroccan tradition where a lady scrubs you raw at a local bath). Recommended only for those ready to take their friendship to the next level.
Photos taken with my Fujifilm XT2 and XT20.