Morocco: A splendid illusion

2013-10-24 11:00

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Few countries conjure up the exotic romance of Morocco. But it’s useful to shift your mindset to get the most out of this land of many faces.

Sunset over the Sahara is where the world stands still. Golden sunlight rippling across the dunes is complemented by the clear-cut, opaque darkness of the shadows.

Your caravan makes its way up one such dune. Five or six camels grunt and moan as their silhouettes create a puppet show against the powder-fine sand.

The group of Berber guides in their traditional bright blue turbans do everything to convince you that you are, in fact, Lawrence of Arabia. That is, until you notice the Adidas sneakers the Berbers sport beneath their robes.

Darkness descends like a curtain and a star-spangled ceiling emerges unlike anything you’ve seen before, a phosphorescent Milky Way crystallised right above you against an ink-black sky.

Your Berber guides escort you to your lodgings for the night: a carpet runway, illuminated by lanterns in the sand, leads to a spacious tent made of colourful, patterned fabrics.

Carpets, cushions and four-poster beds abound. A handsome Berber welcomes you with sweet mint tea, and for the rest of the evening he waits on you as he would a sultan.

Snacks (accompanied by wine from the mini-bar – both a rare commodity in these parts) are followed by a feast to be reckoned with: beef tajine with prunes, roast lamb with cumin, couscous with chicken, Moroccan flatbread and aubergine salad.

Each time, your waiter disappears behind a curtain and reappears with more beautiful dishes.

Dessert is oranges and bananas covered in cinnamon, a local favourite, followed by more mint tea.

‘Welcome to the greatest show on Earth,’ the Lonely Planet introduction begins – but not everyone is after the illusion. Where is the real Morocco, you might ask?

It is easy to become fed up with the constant pandering and fake special treatment you receive because of your First Ascent jacket and foreign face.

The constant beckoning by stall vendors and attempts to convince you that these pointy leather slippers are unlike any other in the country.

The grinning invitation by carpet sellers to have dinner with their family, only to experience their wrath later when you reveal you cannot afford to buy a carpet.

However, to manoeuvre your way through Morocco in relative harmony, it is important to confront the facts.

You are a tourist, and tourism is a large part of Moroccan life. It is important to recognise and appreciate the picture painted for you, but learning to see both the picture as well as how and why it is painted is the art of seeing the real Morocco.

A guided tour of the country might afford you the opportunity to see remote and breathtaking corners.

You would climb the crisscrossing roads up the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, through dizzying ravines where, out in the middle of nowhere, all the vendors are selling dazzling red crystals nestled inside round grey rocks.

You’d visit oasis country, where you can buy boxes of toffee-like dates at bargain prices.

You’d make your way through stretches of Sahara where the only people you come across are herding sheep in mohair coats, and fossil country where a man will try to explain in broken French about dinosaur bones. And still you will see the Coca-Cola billboards in Arabic.

Guides – whether real or fake – are an inevitability. Rather than reject them, embrace them as part of the Moroccan way. In a place like the labyrinthine medina (old city) of Fes, a guide is not a luxury but a necessity, and it is a relief not to have to choose from the myriad children fighting over pennies.

One of our guides, Latief, was from Marrakech, married with four children and could speak five languages fluently. Ahmed, on the other hand, lives in a remote Saharan town, has never left Morocco and drives tourists around in a Land Rover in the desert.

‘You like adventure?’ he asked slyly before we went leaping over dunes.

In the car he likes to play panpipe cover versions of pop hits.

Mohammed, who shows people around the world-famous tannery in Fes has, like most people in the industry, inherited it.

As a child, he tanned leather for one dirham a day (‘Enough for a movie and a small sandwich’) until the lime burnt his skin.

Whoever your guide may be, breathe in the country as a whole. Stay a while, get to know the rhythms of the medina, the way women emerge from doorways in the city walls with rolled dough on their way to the baker to have flatbreads baked for lunch.

Children play with marbles in the narrow alleyways, so that you have to step over them. In the afternoons, men in floor-length robes sit at street cafes drinking café nus-nus (strong Moroccan coffee). The fruit vendors in Marrakech sell their produce until midnight.

Feel the intense pride and deep-seated respect for the way things have always been done, and the way that, at dusk, the entire city vibrates with muezzin calls.

This is the real Morocco.

When in Morocco Do

... learn key phrases in Arabic beforehand. ‘Balek’ (‘mind out the way!’) usually means there is an overloaded donkey behind you – not an easy animal to stop! ‘La’ means no.

... have cash on you at all times for tips – 100 dirhams is standard for a one-off visit to a tannery, market or ruins. Always have change for bathroom attendants (they’re everywhere), entertainers in restaurants or children who show you the way.

... stay in riads (guesthouses) instead of hotels. They are usually beautiful, run by a family and offer home-cooked meals.

... in Marrakech, visit Yves St Laurent’s electric-blue and yellow house (below) in the tranquil Jardin de Majorelle. The Roman ruins between Moulay Idriss and Volubilis are hauntingly well-preserved, and the film studio in Ouarzazate is where scenes in movies such as Gladiator were shot.

... pack plenty of Panados and plasters as pharmacies are hard to find.

Don’t

... let a tour guide cut you off from real life. Typical Moroccan pride may make him inclined to arrange everything for you. Get to know people and do a few things on your own.

... despair that there is no alcohol available. Alcohol may not be sold ‘in view of a mosque’ but you can enquire discreetly.

... support animal cruelty by paying animal handlers at Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square. Monkeys are taken from their mothers at an early age and have their teeth removed; snake charmers stitch their cobras’ mouths closed and hoods back so they stay erect. Around 10 000 tortoises are killed a year to make shell souvenirs.

... catch the eye of a vendor unless you are considering buying. If you’re not, it is best to be firm – just say no instead of being polite.

... go looking for romantic Casablanca – it was filmed in Hollywood. Although the seafood is good in the city of Casablanca, if you’re short on time skip it and focus on Fes and Marrakech.

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