We plough through Distance Education school work as much as we can. The internet is very fragile – on and off which makes it very tedious for all of the girls as well as the supervisors! It looks like this week’s work will have bits and pieces of missing work throughout until we can get to Cyprus to catch up. We are expecting much better and more consistent wifi there (fingers crossed).
It’s also the day before we leave for our big tour to the High Atlas Mountains and The Sahara. It’s a three night 4-day tour and starts early Saturday morning. So tomorrow we travel to Marrakech via train and will meet my brother Jarrod there. He’s been staying in the coastal town of El Jadida and he’s catching a bus to Marrakech. We’re packing to go on this tour as well as pilfering and packing all of our belongings so that when we return on Tuesday sometime we’re almost finished with our packing to leave the country next Thursday. On the one hand living a minimalistic life is very freeing, but on the other it’s hard to work out what stays and what goes when you’re starting from not owning many possessions. It’s a hectic time packing for an extended weekend away in the mountains and desert but that’s what comes along with the intrepid long term travel life.
This afternoon French friends Fanny and Ornello leave the dorm house to go visit Rabat and then home back to France. They’re going back to study at university with Fanny ecstatic that she’s been accepted into a French Business School. We all gather for a photo opportunity and hug and wave them goodbye and good luck. It’s another sad moment in the dorm house. We realise that this time next week we will also have departed the dorm house and Morocco. We missed out on visiting the cultural capital Fes due to the extreme heat as well as the famous blue city of Chefchaouen but that will give us more reason to return on another trip.
We have finally booked flights for the six of us out of Morocco departing next Thursday at 7:50am. I’m not even wanting to imagine what time we will have to be up to get to the airport for that one. But it will be a very early start and we will arrive into Cyprus at 8:10pm (Cyprus time). We have a 2 hour 55 minute stop over in Brussels so it’s not direct but the best way we could reach Cyprus in peak season for six people and not pay a fortune for flights and not be waiting at airports for nine plus hours. All up we paid A$3,300 for the one way flights.
And since this is to be our final week living and exploring Morocco I’m reflecting on the resilience my girls have demonstrated with our recent trip to Rabat and then Tanger. The train delays accompanied by little air conditioning and the issues we had to work through to make the trip worthwhile. The advantages of travel is that they are learning how to be resilient in the face of all this. It’s one of the advantages of do-it-yourself traveling and organising.
Openness to meet new people.
Willingness to try new things.
There are trains out there to catch.
There are people out there to know.
There is food out there to taste.
There is culture out there to understand.
There is a whole world out there to experience.
I’m not sure how we’re really going to assimilate back into the thinking and lifestyle that we left behind over seven months ago.
We set the alarm early and depart the dorm house by 9am. We have a name of the guest house we are staying at tonight and that’s it: Riad dar Radya. How we actually get there is anyone’s guess. So we’ll worry about that later on the train. We walk out onto the street and hail a few blue petit taxis to take us to the train station. The one I catch with two of the girls is an old beaten up car with a few cracks in its windscreen. We walk with American volunteer Biafra who is also heading to the train station to visit his favourite Moroccan city Rabat for the day and it will be the last time we see him here before he journeys back to the US the following evening.
We purchase tickets for the 9:28am to Marrakech (445 Dh 2nd class versus 684 Dh 1st class) and give Biafra a final hug and wish him the best of luck for his future. It’s sad to say goodbye but we hope to keep in touch with all the wonderful volunteers we have got to know so well while living in the Berrechid dorm house.
The train to Marrakech is delayed by 15 minutes and the red sign on the digital board alerts us to this fact with the word “retard” on the screen. So I enjoy a coffee and the girls’ croissants at the train station café. Unfortunately, there’s many men sitting inside the cafe smoking so the plume of smoke is intoxicating.
There’s a cute Moroccan toddler on the train that’s called Ashy and she’s very cute. She wants to play with us at the compartment doorway like peek a boo, but her mum is trying to keep her contained and less boisterous. She cries when she’s kept inside her compartment so letting her roam up and down the train aisle is nice for all of us.
We look out the window and watch the changing landscape roll past – beautifully red ochre land, eucalyptus plantations, olive groves, small towns, fields of cactus, and the major construction works of a new train line. Steve does some research and we discover that Australia is approximately 17 times larger than Morocco. Looking at this another way, it is either 2 times bigger than the state of Victoria or half the size of South Australia. The girls are starting to grasp the fact that our country, Australia is such an expansive and diverse country and is the 6th largest country in world. Best way to learn geography is on the travel route.
We disembark at Marrakech train station. It’s a lovely train station with a large chandelier hanging in the middle of the station and already we get the feeling that the vibe here is one of more organised tourism than what we’ve been used to in other the other Moroccan towns we have visited.
We start the haggling process for a taxi to take us to our Marrakech Riad (guesthouse) – and Steve is now an expert at this. Charlie comes in second place when it comes to haggling. She can negotiate prices for clothes, sunglasses, jewellery down to half of the original asking price and come away with both vendor and buyer smiling. I’m terrible at it and shy away at the hard bargaining and so too does Ash. Steve makes a swift agreement with the taxi driver and we follow him over to his parked taxi in the car park beside the station. As we are about to climb in, another van drives up behind the taxi and the driver jumps out flashing a white piece of paper with the words British Language Academy written on it. I think, Hey that’s us, are you here to pick us up? So we are unknowingly collected at Marrakech train station by the tour company and we apologise to the taxi driver who has moved his car for us to climb into. He’s okay about it all. But we have no idea we were getting picked up. I have no idea how they found us either.
An elderly Moroccan man pushing a wheel barrow-cart like contraption helps with our luggage and carts it to the Riad through the medina archway and down the street from where the tour guide car drops us off. The Riad is situated within the walls of the old medina and therefore no cars can enter as they just don’t fit! He’s an extremely happy and very friendly man who prompts me to take a photo of everyone. Of course I oblige. We are off to a good start in bustling and hot Marrakech.
We arrive to our Riad, that’s situated down a narrow alleyway and we meet the Riad manager Moussa. He’s a young man with a lovely smile and very keen to sit us down within the open Moroccan style lounge of the Riad and serve us mint tea. We discover over tea and a Marrakech map that the Riad, located in old medina, is also easy walking close to La Place Jemaa El, otherwise known as Marrakech Square. It was here that public hangings occurred back in the day and the Souk nearby was the place to where slaves were sold. We are shown to our rooms – Steve and I are downstairs while the four girls are upstairs in the bunk bed dorm room.
We haven’t eaten anything other than nuts on the train and a croissant at the Berrechid train station café, so we venture out and make our way to Marrakech Square for a late lunch. We walk down the winding alleyways of the medina, it’s very quiet and peaceful at the moment and a scorching 40-something degrees Celsius. These alleyways are lined either side with stalls and shops selling anything and everything from jewellery, earthenware tagines, soaps for the Turkish-style Hamman baths, and items of clothing. We reach the vast openness of the square and its red pavement is hot. It’s empty now but we are assured the square will be full and bursting with street performers and crowds once the sun starts to go down and the heat subsides.
We walk left and find ourselves sitting in a restaurant ordering cool drinks, kebabs and a tagine. For 30 Dirham (A$4) Steve and I share the best tagine (also called Maraq) we have had so far in Morocco – tasty vegetables slowly cooked over a large piece of succulent boned chicken. Yum!
After lunch we walk around the perimeter of the square and through its middle sighting La Kautoubia (the mosque) which is inside the old medina walls, snakes and cobra handlers, monkeys dressed up in costumes. It’s exotic because we’re in Morocco but I feel sad that these animals are still used as entertainment in these parts of the world. The food and drinks stands – fresh juice only – are starting to set themselves up. We walk back to the Riad as Jarrod should be arriving into Marrakech via bus soon and we have planned to meet him outside the medina gates.
As we wait for Jarrod to arrive, back at the medina Moussa gives us a plate of Amlou (almond paste/dip) with bread. It’s highly regarded by the Moroccans and is very tasty. It’s a little like Nutella without the chocolate and much nicer but more expensive.
We meet Jarrod in just outside the medina gates at 4.30pm and make our way down to the Riad.
Jarrod checks in and no sooner are we walking back to Marrakech Square for dinner with Jarrod. We pass through the souk with all of the shops. We stop off at a jewellery shop and purchase some silver earrings and rings. This place really gets going late afternoon onwards.
This time the scene is completely changed from just two hours previously. The emptiness of the Square has been filled with stalls of food and juice bars. There’s plenty of hard talking and haggling for business now. Charlie and Steve try Moroccan snails (they now know they don’t like). We walk over to the fresh juice stalls and suddenly a bunch of men from four different stalls are yelling at us from their elevated stands trying desperately to grab our attention and our Dirham. It’s literally crazy! All the food stalls are given a number – so when wandering around they’re coming up to people telling us their number, why they’re the best, and many say a simple rhyme to get a laugh out of us like ‘finger lickin’ good’ and so on.
Half of us go to one juice stand and the other half to another. The yelling and commotion caused to attract our business is loud and makes it hard to make a decision. But the juices are extraordinary. The freshly squeezed orange juice is cold and fresh, and the mixed juice with watermelon and other red fruits that Dacey loves is refreshing and filling. For a bit of fun, Charlie and Ash are invited up into the juice stall with the Moroccans and get a photo taken. Another way of promoting their stall number that is hanging out the front.
It feels like the wild west of food stalls in Marrakech Square. We need to be mindful that this place is teeming with beggars, pick pockets, and snake charmers. And the food stall guys try to emotionally blackmail you into dining at their stalls. We say no to one and then they are sad, we say yes to another and they are like why? Everyone is a professional at grabbing the tourist dollar or Dirham in this case. We finally settle on a stall to sit and eat at. It’s nice to sit and watch the craziness occur all around us, but we also know that we will be back out in it trying to get through the scams and crowds soon enough. We order plates of calamari and chicken skewers. They’re lovely but a bit pricey for what we get. Luckily we enjoyed a late lunch and are still full from the delicious chicken tagine and toasted kebabs.
Moussa warns us to be careful. Police patrol the square area until 11pm and then they go home. The thugs and thieves know this so they work after hours – 11pm onwards. There have been cases of robberies by knife and steeling of wallets and cash and jewellery. And although we are always careful without being frightened or panicked, I take note of his warning.
After dinner we walk to the middle of the square to watch the public performances. Previously in the day the square was used as a place of public hangings! Standing there in the middle of the square is confronting to think that that kind of brutality existed for all to see and be fearful of. Again it feels like we are on set of Game of Thrones. It doesn’t take long for the snake charmers to weave their magic and track down the curious tourist and place these poor docile snakes around a their necks. If you know me I really have a dislike of snakes, so I keep my guard and distance. There is no way any Marrakech cowboy is placing one of those reptiles around my neck without me knowing.
But Jarrod gets caught up and before we and he know it he’s got a snake around his neck. Then a straw hat and then not long after he’s kneeling down on a small piece of carpet with a snake around his neck and facing another: a cobra sliding towards him and then standing up looking straight at him. Charlie is secretly filming the whole situation on my camera without the Marrakech cowboys realising, but in the end Jarrod was a goner.
Afterwards the snake charmers want payment and preferably more than less – “notes notes” they demand but Jarrod hasn’t been to the ATM yet, so he’s only got a pocket full of coins. Probably lucky he hadn’t been to the ATM in the end. The Marrakech cowboys weren’t happy but they took all the coins nevertheless.
Back at our quaint and quiet Riad, Moussa shows me how to write our names in Arabic. I’m fascinated by the style and cursiveness of it. For me it’s the most uniquely written languages I have seen. Arabic is written from left to right and the same for reading. I tell Moussa how I just can’t make out the shapes of the words as to me the lines and little accents over some of the letters all look very similar to me.
Moussa tells me that he can learn a new language within a month through intensive learning and practice, but the only language that completely baffles him is Chinese. And recently he’s meeting many more Chinese tourists and visitors in Marrakech and all he knows how to say is hello or nihao and that’s it. He’s completely confused with the language but impressed when I tell him that I studied Mandarin language for 10 years at school and university. I have no idea how I would go learning Arabic especially looking at the Arabic in front of me and trying to work it out.
Moussa is a lovely and kind hearted 24-year old philosophy student who has delved deeply into the philosophical world and its teachings. He tells me he’s read over 1,000 books and his favourite is Richard Dawkins The Illusion of God. I’ll have to read it now. He has only one more year to complete his Philosophy degree and calls himself a humanist because we are all human beings after all.
I agree with him. We have spoken with many Moroccan people who are believer and non-believers. The non-believers cite the religions of the world not treating people equally; religion is in fact the main community that differentiates between human beings. If you are born in India you are most likely to follow and believe in a Hindu God; if you are born in Morocco you are most likely to follow and believe in Islam and so on for other countries. One’s religion is determined by the geographical environment and the family belief system they are born into. Instead of choosing religion people follow it and many follow it with a blind unquestioning faith.
Non-believers in Morocco are called kafir and in this Muslim land I think they find themselves less readily accepted. Kafir is an Arabic term meaning unbeliever, or disbeliever. The term alludes to a person who rejects or disbelieves in God and the teachings of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. I liken it to a gay person “coming out” and not being accepted in his/her society or family because of their sexuality. The same seems to be true with “coming out” as a non-believer of Islam in Morocco – it’s kind of hidden and can be a source of anxiety for many parents/families who feel that their child/ren are going to go to hell if they don’t believe or cover up.
Moussa tells me Germany is on his radar to visit to live and work as he has friends currently living and working there who keep insisting to him to fly over. He’s shares that he’s become more spiritual than religious through studying philosophy. And from what I can gauge though being here and in conversations with many Moroccans, the Islam religion is not just something you believe in but it is entwined in the Moroccan culture and way of life. There’s no escaping it really. Prayers are heard coming from the mosques five times a day through loud speakers, women are covered up and pretty much hiding themselves so as to not incite the desire of another, and it’s obvious that it’s a man’s world here.
Patriarchy dominates and due to the many interpretations of the religious texts it’s not seen as something that needs be addressed, changed or altered. I’m not saying I understand everything there is to know about this religion, but it seems to be one that is omnipresent and almost inescapable if you locals believe anything different or believe nothing at all.
We get into bed excited for our trip tomorrow. Steve and I have a wonderful sleep downstairs in the couples room with the air conditioner going. But upstairs in the bunk dorm room it’s a different story – when I walk up the stairs and go to wake up the tribe, poor Ash hasn’t slept much at all. Uncle Jarrod was snoring throughout the night which kept her awake plus the shared bunk bed room was extremely hot and stuffy. It seems the air conditioner was not working as well as it could have been upstairs.
We eat Moussa’s cooked breakfast and mint tea with Song who is from South Korea. Not sure when he arrived at the Riad, but he and Moussa know one another. After a tasty breakfast we’re ready to start the tour.
We walk out of the old medina gates with Moussa walking with us and outside the gates we meet up with a few other tourist groups who are also on tour. The one thing that I’m beginning to get used to is that we never really know what’s going on in this tour – it just happens at the time it needs to happen. A lesson in going with the flow is required. On the up side, it’s a weekend that both Steve and I don’t have to organise, research or plan for our family. We are completely hands off and it’s rather welcome change. So this tour for us is more like a holiday than anything else!
We’re shown to a tourist van where we place all our luggage in the back. It’s a new van, clean and comfortable. This will be home for the seven of us for the next three days while we journey a total of 1,025km through the High Atlas Mountains and The Sahara and back to Marrakech.
To read about our extraordinary trip through the High Atlas Mountains and The Sahara please go to Days 216-218 | Five: Moments of Morocco in Atlas Mountains and The Sahara | 22-24 July 2017. It’s epic!
Today we travel all the way back to home base Berrechid. Jarrod departs earlier than us to catch a bus back down to the coastal town of El Jadida (where he came from pre-tour). It’s been a wonderful tour experience with Jarrod and we hope he enjoys the rest of his stay in Morocco.
An hour later Moussa walks us to the outside of the walled medina and we get a lift to the train station with the tour van. It’s hugs all round with Moussa and we promise to keep in touch with him. Such a lovely young Moroccan man.
The train departs at 10:30am and we’re dropped off to the train station by the tour company which is very nice. The journey back to Berrechid seems shorter than expected after experiencing the huge travelling distances we did over the weekend. We are tired, can you tell by how we look on the train, after the amazing experience we’ve all shared in the Atlas Mountains and The Sahara.
After three hours on the train without delays we are at Berrechid. There are a group of male Moroccan travellers standing near the doorway of the carriage questioning our intention to disembark at Berrechid. It’s very similar to what we experienced in Buldana, rural India even though we’re not rural here in Berrechid. There is not one skerrick of tourism operating here in industrial town Berrechid. The men are asking Steve are you sure you want to get off here – it’s Berrechid? It makes us laugh. There’s a wonderful story to be told just in those two destinations of Buldana and Berrechid; Dr Moses and Mr Harim; rural India and industrial Morocco. More ideas for my book!
Even when I’m off the train and walking through the train station towards the external taxi rank, a woman turns to me and starts talking French, but I tell her I’m Australian and only speak English. “Oh I thought you were French.” She then proceeds to advise me in English that it’s better if I hide my camera away. I respond with, “But I’ve been here for a month already.” She’s shocked at hearing this and I’m left wondering do I not have the Moroccan grime under my skin yet? Even after a month of living here? I thank her anyway for looking out for me and walk out to the Berrechid sunshine and start looking for two blue petit taxis to take us back home to the dorm house.
Since we have been away there has been an array of colourful flags erected along the main street in Berrechid. They’re absolutely beautiful flapping in the wind and we wonder what’s going on in quiet Berrechid for these flags to be up.
We get a lovely welcome home greeting by the international volunteers. We have a quick chat in the hallway before unpacking and putting our dirty Sahara clothes in the wash. There’s no Andrei, Julish, or Biafra. Sam is back from his week away but Sofia returned to Belgium to collect her son and will return to Berrechid well after we depart. It’s also Mat’s last night here before he heads off to Marrakech and a trip the desert (which we highly recommend) and then back to Belgium to complete his final semester studying.
Nothing back at the dorm house has changed. There are also no new volunteers which is surprising. It’s been quiet here. Bart and the French guys inform us it’s been very quiet and boring without us which is nice to hear. I suppose there are six of us to contend with at once!
We’re happy to be back for our final day (tomorrow) to paint the Australian flag with all our names underneath on the wall outside the classrooms. We are the first Australians to volunteer at Berrechid British Language Academy. Now we really feel like explorers. Ash has opted to take the project of painting the Australian flag which is great. Knowing her tendency for perfection, our flag will be look absolutely beautiful.
Tonight all the volunteers in the dorm house gather on the rooftop for a BBQ. We buy fillets of chicken from the Halal butcher, some onions and peppers. Dacey marinates the cubes of chicken in Worcestershire sauce while Steve and I are taking an English language classroom conversation. The French boys have purchased minced meat, so after the classroom Steve makes hamburgers and we attempt to cook them on the tiny BBQ located up on the rooftop, but retreat back downstairs to the gas top and frying pan for much better results. It’s a lovely night on the rooftop which marks our last.
There’s some serious packing and cleaning out of our belongings occurring. I’m throwing out clothes that haven’t been worn in ages (haha like a couple of months), giving away food that has accumulated in our basket and giving way the two fans that we purchased to help keep us cool to the first person who wants them! I am literally starting the packing process from scratch ie. empty suitcases. We have three suitcases (pink, red, and gold) plus two backpacks (mine and Steve’s) and then the girls each have a small carry on backpack plus a drone bag. We are permitted to check in six bags of up to 20kg each on our flight to Brussels and then onto Cyprus. The best strategy I can employ in getting this right here and now and not getting flustered at the airport trying to balance out over weight suitcases (yes we have been and done this before) is to distribute the heavy text books (mainly for Charlie’s Year 11 and 12 and then workbooks for Ash and Billie) between the three suitcases topped up with clothing.
On our final day in Berrechid we get to experience something quite special and unique to Berrechid. There’s something big happening in Berrechid all this week and it has to do with the brightly coloured flags erected on each lamp post along the main road: it’s the Horse Festival!
Just up the road where previously there was vacant dusty land are tents, horses, and gunfire. Around 4-8pm each day for one week the Moroccans put on a show for the people. It’s huge! I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes us feel like we are in the middle of medieval times or I’m on the set of Game of Thrones! The horses are all stallions and they’re beautiful creatures. Well looked after, they’re tethered during the day and then ridden during the late afternoon into the evening.
Steve and I get out of the dorm house in between intensive packing to enjoy our final lunch in Berrechid. We walk over to take a look at what’s happening at this Horse Festival. We enjoy our final Berrechid lunch from our friendly Moroccan man in the café who makes toasted chicken panini with a freshly squeezed orange juice. I think I’ve said it before but I’m so going to miss Morocco’s delicious freshly squeezed orange juice.
The Horse Festival HUGE! And it’s being set up like a family fair with hundreds of colourful flags surrounding the venue with makeshift children’s rides, popcorn stalls, helium balloons and lots of families attending the horse festival spectacle. There are stalls set up along the street selling anything from nuts and fruits to shining tea pots and earthenware for cooking. We wonder around looking at hundreds of stallions tethered outside large Arabic tents. We decide to return to see all the action with the horses and the riders and the firing of guns between 4-8pm. The wind has cropped up and there’s so much hay on the ground that I get hay fever.
When we return at 5pm the Tbourida aka Horse Festival has been transformed into a military parade of Fantasia. Horsemen are riding strong, biting at the bit stallions and they’re all dressed up in a uniform of sequins and frills – both rider and horse. There are no safety barriers for pedestrians to walk through so it’s a process of dodging these massively strong and uptight stallions that are frothing at the mouth and dancing on the tips of their hooves. It’s shared foot and hoof traffic here so we are to very watchful all around us as these stallions often have a mind of their own and we could end up underneath one quite easily. I have already seen some of the stallions run into the side of a car.
Fantasia is an equestrian show that simulates military assaults practised mainly in Maghreb (North Africa Arab-Berber area). Often also known as the “game of powder” or “game of horses”. It’s an intense and vibrant display of horse rider, horse, and gun powder. The sound of gun fire echoes out throughout the town of Berrechid each night between 4-8pm. These stallions are so accustomed to this loud sound that they don’t flinch one bit. All I can say is that it’s an amazing and intriguing spectacle.
We return to the dorm house after the horse festival, play a final game of table tennis, take our final classroom language conversation, make dinner and the rest of the night is about packing, saying goodbye to our volunteer community as well as the Moroccan teachers and completing the painting of the Australian flag with our names etched on the classroom hallway wall. Ash has done a brilliant job.
We lap up our final sunset on the rooftop at Berrechid. There’s a large crowd of horse festival goers on the streets. We are up early in the morning – up at 4am – so it’s a sad farewell to everyone tonight.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our month stay and volunteering in Morocco. It has been amazing to experience another unique and different culture than what we have been used to. It is so true that what we hear broadcast in the media about other places around the world and their cultures and religions are not all truth. To really know and understand a place in the world one must leave home and seek to understand it through experience. I believe it’s only then, without political points of view mingled in media mania, that you can see that the people all around the world are truly beautiful human beings and open to us visiting.
Humanity is what I believe in, and I hope to continually inspire and share this open worldly view with my family. Let the prejudices vanish and insecurities disappear. It’s amazing actually knowing what is out here in this amazing world of ours and to experience it first-hand.