Why did I choose here of all places? What was appealing about the desert, only four hours of electricity at night, and washing my clothes in a river? To be honest, it was the prospect of a different perspective. It was the challenge of pushing my comfort zones and defying the stigma behind traveling to certain countries as a woman. It was to learn about a culture that has influenced parts of Europe in language, architecture, and cuisine. Visiting Morocco was challenging, but beyond rewarding.
Getting to Morocco is relatively straightforward. Its close proximity to Europe makes it easily accessible by plane or through the Strait of Gibraltar. I would suggest traveling both ways. Going by boat into Tangier from Tarifa is a fun way to take in the coastlines of the respective continents and see the influence Muslim culture had over southern Spain. The first time I went to Morocco, however, I took a cheap flight with Ryanair from Rome into Rabat. Here are some things I know now about visiting Morocco.
1. Make sure you know where you are going
I know it sounds simple. You already bought the plane ticket. You obviously know what country you’re going to. However, make sure you have directions to where you’ll be sleeping. We arrived in Rabat as the daylight cast shadows across the streets. We had booked a room through Couchsurfing.
Finding a taxi from the airport wasn’t hard, but the language barrier proved to be difficult. All we had was an address on a piece of paper. Ensure you have photos of your route or landmarks around the place you’re staying. We handed the paper to the driver and sat back with high hopes.
Eventually, we were dropped at a restaurant on an empty street. The taxi driver didn’t know the address and said he couldn’t help us. This is when we realized we should have purchased a temporary international data plan. With the phone plan, we would have been able to contact our host or use Google Maps. We wandered the streets instead, following the directions of the restaurant staff until by sheer luck we found our host’s flat.
2. Take the scenic route when visiting Morocco
Don’t be afraid to stop and enjoy the scenery. The morning was brisk and the terrain flat until we reached the foothills of the mountains that stretched from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The Atlas Mountains boast diverse terrain and wildlife. It is a place you should visit to discover the Berber culture and lifestyle. Multiple times along the way we pulled over to admire the green contrast against the sandy hills.
The oasis stretched for miles, home to the only civilization in the desert. Our driver spoke of a forest full of monkeys outside the city of Azrou. The forest is home to Barbary macaques (or Barbary apes). These are the only species of macaques found outside of Asia. As we wandered the paths staring into the trees, small, furry creatures emerged from the brush. Two puppies wobbled out to greet us and laid sleepy in the morning sun. Although we wanted to take them both, we had to leave them behind.
3. Remember that you are a tourist
Our journey led us to a local in Marrakech, driving six hours with our driver who was a shy man, and sleeping amongst the towering cliff sides of the Todra Gorge. The latter being our final destination. A river cut its way through the course, tan rock faces; leading through a single hotel, the community gardens, and a small Berber village. This is where we learned the most about Berber culture. Our friend Watik, whom we had met the first time visiting Morocco, lived with his family on a mountain top; a two-hour hike up the Todra Gorge.
We loaded up the donkeys with crystal clear water we collected out of a small stream that made its way through the rough rocks and came out at the bottom of the gorge. Let me tell you one thing though: there were fish in it. Yes. We drank fish water. If you don’t have a strong immune system, I wouldn’t recommend it. My friend was sick for two days.
Another thing our friends told us was that only men were allowed to collect this freshwater. Women were not allowed. However, seeing as I was a tourist, I couldn’t resist. I asked Watik if I would offend anyone and he said no.
One thing I had realized by this point visiting Morocco was that the locals didn’t want tourists to dress like them or try to ‘not be a tourist’. Tourism drives their economy and they know that. However, still be respectful and ask. I went over and put my gallon jugs into the fresh cold stream and filled them one by one.
4. Sample the local cuisine
Heading into the mountains, the donkeys carried the necessities; our water and, most importantly, Berber bread. If you haven’t had this bread, you should. They eat it with every meal. Each night we huddled on the floor around a single plate of couscous and tagine. We split the bread in half, enough to use two fingers, and dug into the tagine, scooping it like a stuffing between the bread and shoving it into our mouths. Everyone partook at the same time. There was no silverware or plates. You took what you wanted, when you wanted.
We had the opportunity to make this meal one night in the hotel and also on top of the mountain. On the six-hour drive over we also stopped for food and had a camel stew. For the Berbers, it is a delicacy, and to be honest you would have to try it to understand that it doesn’t taste like chicken. Back in the mountains when we reached the peak, there was a symbol made out of rocks. It resembled a stick figure, but the bottom of the figure mirrored the top. I asked Watik what it meant and he told me it meant ‘free people’. He said we would find it on every peak and oftentimes on peoples’ front doors. Standing on the mountain peak as the sun set over the Todra Gorge, you could hear the faint cries of the shepherd’s herd.
5. Learn a new skill
Watik’s family took us to another peak at dusk and brought mint-flavored shisha to enjoy at the top of the mountain’s peak where they lived. We sat up there smoking and watching the sunset as they brought out a sort of sling with two retention cords on either side of a leather pouch. This method of slinging goes back centuries.
Used in many different forms over different cultures, we learned how to use this sling to herd goats. Placing a rock in the pouch, you swing the sling around your body until you are ready to release. You usually try to hit on the opposite side of where you want the herd to go. This spooks the goats and forces them the other way and the direction you would like them to move. My friend and I tried this technique many times. The rock went everywhere but straight. Oftentimes it would fly above us or behind us.
The next day we made our way down the mountain to do our laundry. We insisted on doing it ourselves to learn the customs. They handed us a plastic tub and a cup of powder. They directed us to the river and we went calf deep.
Let me give you one piece of advice: don’t fill your tub while facing downstream. I lost a few good pairs of underwear on my first try. Quickly realizing I was doing it wrong, I readjusted my position to face upstream and allowed the water to fill my tub. I sprinkled the powder soap into the tub and began scrubbing my clothes together. It was the most humbling experience I had while visiting Morocco, especially coming from a western lifestyle where we have washers and dryers.
6. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
After rock climbing, one of our fellow climbers said there was a local hammam she wanted to try but didn’t want to go alone as a woman, so we accompanied her. Hammams are public bathhouses and we were not ready for this. When we arrived, a man at the front counter gave us a rag and a substance wrapped in plastic wrap. That brown glob was the soap. There was a gentlemen’s side and a ladies’ side. When we entered all the women were naked and stared at us. We proceeded to a bench and laid our clothes down.
We undressed and a woman approached us and started telling me something in Arabic. I couldn’t understand her but she was pointing to my underwear. She was telling me that our underwear was to remain on. Then she took all three of us through the curtains and we entered what looked like a college shower room. Women were bathing their children and some children were small enough that they just sat in their five-gallon buckets watching as we walked past.
Playing soccer collegiately, I was used to a shared shower room. What I wasn’t prepared for was a woman bathing me personally. They threw us around on the floor like we were five years old again. They scrubbed us and both the women and children were fascinated with my tattoos. Everyone huddled over me and turned me over and around this way and that to see each one. At the very end, they stood all three of us against the wall and each woman took turns throwing buckets of warm water at us as the final rinse. As uncomfortable as it may have been, I would do it all over again.
7. You’ll never be prepared for the local transport
Let me tell you, unless you have a private car, you will never be prepared for what you may experience with local transport while visiting Morocco. As our trip came to an end, Watik and his friends found a local charter bus that could take us back to Marrakech. This was by far cheaper than a private car, however, you sacrifice some security and personal space. The charter also needed to make frequent stops in cities and so our quick six-hour drive became a ten-hour schlep.
To get to the bus station, we had to take local transport from the small village in the gorge and it was packed. People were on the roof, hanging on the sides, standing, sitting, and in any other position you could think of. We crammed ourselves on, wide-eyed, enjoying every second and taking it all in. When we reached the charter bus, no one was on the roof and it was a typical charter you would catch in France.
Being in a country with undeveloped road systems, we quickly came to a flooded road. A river was crashing through and the local police only let one car pass at a time. Slowly wading through, we thought we would be swept away in the current. Making it through, we had seven more hours to go.
Go travel in the desert on camelback. Stroll through fields, gardened by generations of families. Hear the river that feeds on smaller streams that nourish it. Whether it’s by boat or by plane, I would recommend visiting Morocco. Travel with another person or a group, though. The cities are bustling, set against a terrain that is vast and rugged. Traveling with others is not only more fun to create memories together, but it is safer. Trying to defy the stigma of solo traveling as a woman is both gratifying and motivating, but there is a time and place when you have to read your environment and the culture.
When I went back two more times, each to different areas, I kept this in mind. The first time was exhilarating and exciting, but there were moments of uncertainty and situations that could’ve been harmful for my friend and me. Morocco is a progressive and modernizing country, however, the history and culture still run deep through its rivers. Go have fun, see the beautiful coastline and the blue city, Chefchaouen, but be conscious of where you are.