Any designer can attest, at least somewhere on our bucket travel list you will find Morocco. It has long been on my list of countries to check off, so when my daughter decided to spend a semester abroad, I thought here is my chance to ease my motherly worry and check out the sights I had long heard about. I kept a travel journal longer than any other I had recorded in my years of traveling.Perhaps Morocco’s magic is a testament of my need to capture every little smell, taste and sensation.
Arriving first in the county’s capital, Rabat, late at night I was worried whether we could and would we fit in. Would our western clothing give us away, and could we blend in enough to enjoy it? I felt self-conscious on that first night, but locals were neutral – even cordial. We imagined our western wardrobe would be scrutinized when we arrived, and while we were dressed conservatively, no one gave us a second glance. We choose to stay in all of the cities’ medinas (old walled cities dating back over 1,200 years, as in the case of Fez.)These walled, narrow streets not big enough for a car, really just an alleyway wind and snake through a part of many cities in NorthernAfrica. It’s fascinating that despite the challenges, locals have adapted to this condensed living by celebrating what it gives back in its sense of community. Little stalls are cut out of the walls and merchants are selling everything from olives, bread, meats, vegetables, textiles, clothing, snakes, fish – really anything you can think of is offered.
Our first morning was pierced by the scratchy on-and-off click of a loud speaker hosting the morning call to prayer – at 5:30 am this sound was alarming, but as the days moved on it startled us less, and fell into the background – much like church bells in a piazza or the clatter of a train, like in my first apartment in Chicago.
Morocco is one of those places where it’s hard to quickly fall into a rhythm, but as time passed we found it. One minute it delights and amazes, the next it bothers and bombards you. I have called this particular trip a journey – not just a vacation because I am here with a purpose – to learn if it feels safe enough for me to leave my daughter here for a 3.5 month study abroad program.
Worrying is my motherly pastime, but cast me back 20+ years ago and I am sure I caused my parents a few sleepless nights wondering where I was off to. I even in my late 20’s contemplated thePeace Corp. My career path might not reveal the evidence of a liberal eco-fighter, but deep inside I had youth’s idealism.
Once I let down my guard, I started to notice something fascinating about this exotic, colorful place –where haggling is not only suggested, it’s required to earn your stripes.The bustle and busy marketplace at first was overwhelming, but what I realized is that the sense of community is resting right below its crowded surface. As a tourist you might in fact be the outsider, but rest assured everyone around knows one another.And within a day they “know you”, too.
Morocco surprised me often with its contrast of good and better than good.The good would sneak up on you like the gruff man walking in front of us one day – a local – silently witnessing him stop by the old lady on the street who we have seen everyday – he reached in his humble pocket and offered her change, and she reacts as if he does it everyday. I think he might.
The softness of the people here in Morocco smoothes out the edges of this harsh desert landscape and soaring temperatures.Their kindness and sense of community is suddenly noticed before the dirt and grime of the street. Even their sense of pride in their ancient city reveals itself as they wash the dirty bricks with buckets of precious water, sweeping up trash early and late preparing for the next rush of traffic.
The hawkers as they are called (not sure why) sell everything from local crafts of fine Sabra silk blankets (Sabra is a silk spun from the agave plant and intricate textiles are woven into amazing colors for bed linens, table coverings, etc ) to berber carpets, trinkets, bracelets, copper and brass hand-stamped platters, tables, lamps, and chandeliers.The vendors are persistent and straightforward, coming at you with a friendly sales pitch wherever you go.At first this makes us uncomfortable coming from a tidy retail culture, but as time moves on you realize a simple and polite ‘no, thanks’ veers them away with a kind ‘thank you madame, no problem.’Or better yet – they’ll stop, tell their unique story and will not only try to sell you something both beautiful and special, but additionally they will offer you delicious mint tea and an interesting, meaningful conversation about their trade. Rest assured, the designer in me couldn’t pass up a few well-chosen gems – a leather pouf, colorful textiles, hand painted tea glasses, and my favorite leather hand-crafted camel.Sometimes I regret that I didn’t come back with more material beauties, but quickly I realize I came back with so much more.
Gentleness can sometimes be hard to find everyday – we don’t see it in our fast paced 24/7 culture, but it exists in Morocco, and this is a warm reminder that we aren't alone on this planet – that our understanding of all the problems that plague our troubled world can’t be exclusively viewed through rose tinted glasses.
This blog post might disappoint as it didn’t necessarily focus on all the beauty of the fabulous riads we stayed in – like Riad Joya in Marrakesh, or Palais Amani in Fes. Riad Joya provided us with a cool refuge from the hot souring heat.The sand colored linen drapes, soft toned stone courtyard with hand-worked lanterns and trays was a delight. Palais Amani – a 19th century palace that was restored in the 1920’s, was recently made into an amazing guesthouse. Moroccan tiles, coupled with wrought iron railings on the stairs, beautiful linen drapes block the sun and create privacy on the large amazing metal and glass doors. No detail was left untouched – fine white crisp bedding, beautiful locally crafted lamps and chandeliers, and ample tastefully upholstered furniture create a large bedroom and great sitting room for each suite. High ceilings gave a remarkable view to the Riad’s lush, well-preserved garden of fruit trees with a stone and mosaic fountain – all maintained and restored through an in-depth renovation.
The Riads – the delicious restaurant where we ate on the terrace of Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, soaking in the beauty of theAtlas Mountains, and the colorful, exquisite Jardin Maroelles –Yves St Laurent’s garden in Marrakesh. I can see where YSL drew inspiration from Moroccan colors, and carved shapes of wood and metal. Vibrant OchrE, cobalt blue, and spicy saffron are colors that stand out to me against the terra cotta buildings.The Berbers themselves – fascinating, colorful in their traditional wardrobe – are a population of people dwindling but standing with their tradition and language for over 9000 years.The oldest living culture we have as humans.
As I write this I am struck by the fact that while the beauty was indelible and inspiring to this designing eye, it is the warmth of the people, and the kindness and generosity of their spirit that made an indelible mark on my motherly heart. My sweet daughter shared stories of her love and fascination with these remarkable people. I thank her loving host family for warmly caring for her for those months.