Back from the eye doctor I don’t bring good news. My eye is under pressure, and all sorts of head movements or strong emotions must be avoided for the next couple of weeks in order to prevent more retinal damage. In other words, I was prescribed physical rest, meditation and a box of mud-tasting pills that smell accordingly.
Sitting in my living room, listening to podcasts to preserve my eyes as much as possible, my nose forces my mind to travel at the scent of the mint tea that steams hot on the table.
Moroccan mint tea. Unique in taste and in its way of serving, the silver teapot wide away from the cup, the colourful teapot handle cover giving it a touch of magic. I had the privilege to have a taste of Morocco before I actually visited the country. I owe it to one of my besties in college, that spent one month in Morocco doing an internship. She brought the recipe with her, and she could not wait to share it with me during one of our late nights at her house.
This girl was the kind of person that I knew would become a good friend as soon as I spotted her in the classroom for the first time. A short, slim girl with very short hair at the time (she told me later that she had just donated what I considered “ALL OF HER HAIR!” to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy – You can get by this gesture just how interesting and kindhearted she was, right?).
My instinct was not wrong, and we soon started to spend a lot of time together. We shared the same feminist ideas, and we had similar life struggles since our cultures were not so different, I was Portuguese and she was French. Curiously, what enchanted me the most about her was just how little “Française” she was. She lacked that arrogance and that superiority feeling we find in the common French. She was genuine, naturally curious and eager to meet people that could teach her something.
She was my mate for long sunbaths by the river, for nights of clubbing for the pure fun of dancing, for intense study sessions, for binge watching our favourite TV shows, for book-swaps and cultural activities. We had the same sense of humour, the same fears, the same revolutionary ideas that we strongly believed (and still do!) would change the world someday.
And there we were, one night in her room, wearing ugly pajamas and drinking Moroccan mint tea. If you ask me to define happiness I find it extremely hard to put it into words, but I would definitely pick this moment to illustrate my vague and uncertain answer.
When I finally made it to Marrakech, on a hot late summer day, I didn’t know what to expect other than a good cup of tea. The Medina (old city) of Marrakesh is a maze of little streets. I felt like Aladdin trying to escape furious tradesmen after stealing a loaf of bread from the market. An immense labyrinth of little streets, full of cats and busy locals. I could admire the colourful tiles and the wooden-carved doors of various sizes and shapes on the way to our riad. Maps.me, my favourite app when I am abroad, tried desperately to guide us to our destination and we finally succeeded after a good half an hour.
At the riad, a sweet and polite lady tried to elucidate us in a funny English “You see, very easy, you turn right, then left, then right again, very easy, then you take the second left, then go straight and you see painting and don’t turn, keep walking, then right, left and finally left again. Very easy, to come back to the riad just do the opposite!”. After this complicated explanation, we went to our room, carrying a puzzled face that would remain for some time.
Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is a place of wonders. Of course nowadays it is very touristy and everything you buy there is overpriced, but it is still good to buy a fresh orange juice (these are delicious all over Morocco) and to walk around. There you can find everything from domesticated monkeys and snake charmers to traditional leather bags. And fresh vegetables. And oranges. Lots of oranges.
We visited the Saadian Tombs, and two of the major palaces in the area, the El Badi Palace (which construction was funded by a substantial ransom paid by the Portuguese after the Battle of Alcácer Quibir) that is now in ruins; and the Bahia Palace, that was built in the late 19th Century in Islamic style with majestic gardens.
Talking about gardens, the most beautiful one in Marrakech is, without a doubt, the Majorelle Garden, an artist’s landscape garden full of cactus of various sizes, contrasting with the indigo blue painted walls. This is the courtyard of a Cubbist Villa that was owned by the designer Yves Saint-Laurent between 1980 and 2008, and where his ashes were spread after his death. The residency was turned into a museum, where I was delighted with the “Happy New Year” postcards Yves Saint-Laurent carefully designed each year to send to his exclusive group of friends.
Unfortunately, all mosques in the country were closed to non-muslims, and we could only appreciate its beauty from the outside. From Koutoubia Mosque, the largest one in Marrakech, I could only take a photo of its minaret tower.
From the many catcalls I got on the streets (“Oh belle gazelle, do you want a Moroccan husband? Yes?”) there was an approach that made me think a bit. I was inside the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an islamic college that today functions as a historical site, lost in my own thoughts, taking pictures of tile after tile, when a guy turned to me. He grabbed my hand and warned me that I was “too beautiful to be showing my face, I should cover it so that other jealous women wouldn’t curse me”. Well, I cannot say if those words amused or terrified me, but I could definitely relate them to the islamic culture and values that were visible both in the people and in the city itself. The Madrasa was literally a representation of his warning, you could barely notice it from the outside, no ornaments or big windows faced the streets, but instead, all its beauty was hidden on the inside, as it was built towards an inner courtyard.
Atlas Mountains, Aït-Ben-Haddou and Dadès Gorges
On our way to the Sahara Desert, an endless car ride took us through the Atlas Mountains, a mountain range divided into three subranges (High Atlas, Medium Atlas and Anti-Atlas) that are primarily inhabited be Berber populations. I lost count of how many Kasbahs (North African citadels) we visited along the way. Each one had its history, its charm.
We stayed in the mountains for three days, in the beautiful Aït-Ben-Haddou, a fortified village in the High Atlas along the former caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara. The days were very hot, 40 degrees and more, and the riad’s small pool of bright blue water was our refuge from the heat.
The Atlas region of Morocco is full of natural wonders that kept reminding me of how tiny and insignificant my presence is in this world. The Dadès Gorges are a good example of this. A series of rugged gorges carved out by the Dadès River made me feel as tiny as a flee.
Camping in the Sahara Desert was an unforgettable experience. The 40 minute camel ride, at sunset, to the camping park, the luxurious tents (with actual toilets, showers and even wi-fi!), the bonfire around which we laid down watching the stars… everything was just perfect!
Our last stop was the picturesque city of Fez, famous for its colourful smelly tanneries. I preferred this city over Marrakech, as it was less touristy and overall more authentic. There, a simple visit to the local market was a challenge, both physical (we were dragged by the crowd without our feet even touching the ground), and emotional (it was hard to watch them selling entire cows stripped off their skin).
The Royal Palace of Fez, where the king stays for short periods twice a year, is not open to the public. Even though it is empty most of the time. I won’t even comment on how revolting it is to stay at the door. Upside, I reckon the huge golden door must be the best part of the palace, lucky me!
On our last day, we decided to try a traditional hammam spa, hoping it was just a “more exotic” version of the spa we were familiar with… a jacuzzi, a massage, and a good relaxing afternoon. Turns out we could not be more wrong nor more unprepared for the actual thing.
Moroccan hammams are part of many Moroccan’s daily life. Similar to a Turkish bath, a public hammam is a steam room (separated by gender) where people go to clean themselves… and each other. It is a weekly social activity in villages and towns where piped water is a luxury. And there we were, fully naked in a steam room full of naked Moroccan women and children, holding an argan soap tightly in our hands, as if that soap was a magic cape that would either turn us invisible (so that we could run away from there unnoticed) or cover our naked bodies. Needless to say that none of this happened. On the contrary, what happened next was a woman pouring an enormous bucket of water over my head out of nowhere, and taking my only hope of retrieving my dignity, my magic soap, off my hands to cheerfully rub my whole body. My e-n-t-i-r-e body. I was so perplexed that I could not move or say a word. I was happy that at least my contact lenses were still in my eyes.
And then again, suddenly, something inside me made me realise that I better cooperate and enjoy the experience. I was able to relax and almost forgot my inhibitions. We were just a bunch of girls, some young, some older, sharing a “community shower” and having fun. I guess it was one of those situations that make you speechless, and at the same time make you a storyteller.
Back in my living room, as I sip my meaningful tea, I have a smile on my face as I realise traveling is my kind of meditation. And Morocco, just an hour flight away, sounds like the perfect retreat. Let me just check skyscanner…
Wishing everyone safe travels,