In this journal:
- gorgeous lamps from old tales;
- North Africa’s tallest peak;
- an Arab version of me.
Taking My Parents to Africa
If you told me two years ago that I would be taking my parents to Africa without some kind of life-threatening coersion, I would laugh so hard that 12 packs would emerge from my belly fat. My parents, as the typical middle-aged Asians they are, believe that Africa is a hoax, fabricated by the government. For them, that continent on the map might as well be a Chinese kid who has not mastered Bayesian quadrature integration by the age of 11: it can technically exist, but just even thinking about it would bring you down to the depths of a special Chinese hell, where all rice is undercooked and every time you negotiate the price with a vender, your house gets an extra washing machine.
So yeah, I could not believe it either, when we stepped onto the soil of Morroco with my parents willingly tagging along without ankle bracelets or TNT strapped on their backs. Granted, they were very scared, and also this is northern Africa, so this would not be the worst scenario. However, I was trembling with fear: I had no idea how this would go, either.
Plaza Jemaa el-Fnaa
Welcome to the centerpiece of Marrakesh wonders. A large square that always seemed to be teeming with noises and activities, this place can be translated from Arabic as “The Mosque at the End of the World”, or “The Assembly Plaza”. This may have something to do with the nearby Koutoubia Mosque, the largest and most important religious worshipping place in the entire region.
Mornings usually are the quietest times in the plaza, with very few breakfast stalls and horse taxis waiting for people. However, every day, starting from the minute that sun began to show its powess, people seemingly popped out of nowhere like mushrooms after a thunderstorm. Snake charmers, barbary monkey entertainers, various random venders, lady henna painters, and an entire row of juice shops manifested into reality within minutes, completely blocking any hope of smooth crossings. However, I was not bothered by it at all: that means I got more time to walk around this marvelous gathering place.
The juice shops are a godsend in the sweltering heat. Marrakesh sits right next to the high Atlas Mountains, and has a rather dry climate, even by Morrocan standards. The stalls line up by a row at the side of the square, running from 10am all the way till late, usually run by a handful of young guys eager to holler at every passer by for a free sample. Once you tried it, you have to buy one: not because the guys are agressive, (they are actually very nice) but because the thirst-quenching door has been opened in your mind, and that 4 Dirham price tag (0.4USD) is just way too good to pass up. However, if you need anything that is not a cup of orange juice, it is gonna cost you 2 dollars or maybe more (Still a bargain in my opinion). You can mix and match almost anything on display of the shop, which usually features dozens of fruits, ranging from exotic to house-common. Nothing beats a large cup of strawberry-mango-coconut-passion fruit mix after a long day in Marrakesh!
However, for me, true fun begins when the sun is about to set. Within 20 minutes, hundreds of people show up from the depths of the markets nearby with steel beams, lights, connectors, chargers, gas stoves, meats, vegetables, displays, tables and chairs, and set up a complete tent city of hundreds of food stalls. While the snake charmers and monkey trainers disappear into the sinking sun, the food party is just about to begin.
The variety of these food stalls include grilled meats, thick soups, some forms of fried doughs, fried meats, specialty meats like the sheep heads featured above, and many others. Each shop is manned by a few cooks, and there is always a tout roaming around the vincinity trying to drag people to their places. In fact, most of the stalls are working with each other, such as a soup place putting their item onto the menu of a barbeque shop, and vice versa. As a result, you may simply be fooled into an illusion of choice, while they share the same owner. Regardless, for a tourist from Europe of North America, the prices are rather low and acceptable for street food, and the touts as well as the cooks are extremely friendly and passionate about their work.
Yet of all kinds of food I mentioned above, I intentionally omitted some of the most iconic Morrocan dishes. Here you have arguably the national dish: tajine. Meaning the small earth pot that it is cooked in, tajine is a classic dish served in almost every corner of the country for cheap. For just 20 Dirhams(2USD), you can get a pot of meats and vegetables slow cooked in delicious herbs and spices. It is hard to imagine anything else more Northern African than a little brown clay pot stewing lamb pieces, nuts, and potatoes. Yummy!
Then there is also the other half of the national food scene: couscous. Taking over your local Whole Foods by a storm of unimaginably high prices, this kind of small grain is indigenous to Morroco and arguably functions as the main staple of the land. A nice bowl of couscous with a tajine pot is the delux workers’ meal deal on a Friday. My father especially liked the dish as it is almost always vegetarian, and pretty.
There are many other light food options available, such as an entire row of small stands serving cooked snails. Yes, snails. Thanks to Morroco’s French colonial history, the locals had developed the sickened taste of rubbery slime crawlers as well. Every day, about a dozen large pots of snails can be seen bubbling in the middle of a circle of chairs, ready to be devoured as another item on my crazy food list.
Morrocan food is not just the cheap, convenient common food, but also high scale, beautifully crafted arts served in ancient mansions of the rich families with water fixtures as well as peacocks. We paid a visit to such a place hidden in the brown valleys one day, and the contrast cannot be more obvious. The artistic decorations and eyeball straining prices all reminded us the stratospheres of social statuses in countries like this.
Yet wherever you go, be it a small restaurant full of locals buzzing about, or a high end establishment with a hummingbird garden, you will always be offered the option of mint tea, the national drink welcomed by all classes. This sweet beverage served on a silver tray with piping hot water as a side has integrated itself into the Morrocan culture, as it was offered to us in the Airbnb, the souvenir shop, the bus station, a local’s house in the mountains, and even in the airport. Nothing could possibly top this eye-candy with equal amounts of real-life sugar after a long hot day under the scorching sun.
The mint tea is not just the only kind of common drink, however. On the Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza, there are a handful of strong ginger date herbal tea stands, which suits my mother’s acquired taste quite well. Due to the fact that this is a Muslim majority country, alcohol is hard to find, and this is the closest thing to beer most folks could acquire.
Finally, as night approaches and darkness sets in, the other half of the square became a marketplace for entertainment and oral traditions. Dancers from certain Berber tribes originally inhabiting these lands called Chleuh, magicians performing tricks for children and adults alike, bands playing loud drumming musics, and local storytellers detailing old fascinating tales of the Berber tribes, all congregated into the plaza that never seemed to be big enough. This is my favorite time on Jemaa el-Fnaa, as our Airbnb was just a stone’s throw away so that I had witnessed it in all its glory in different times of the day. At night, with food touts, performance artists, vocal historians, and indigenous tribes all coming together, the giant space formed a remarkably condensed image of southern Morroco.
It is hard to imagine an Arabic-speaking city without the background of long, narrow, labyrinthic mud wall streets. Indeed, the concept of souk, or marketplace, is born in the streets of such places thousands of years ago, and continues to live on strongly in the center part of Marrakesh today. The covered walkways are perpetually crowded, even though they are devoid of any vehicles. The span, however, is the most shocking part for me. It will take one nearly 2 hours to walk from one side to the other, and that is just one of the major lateral crossings! I am not exaggerating when I claim there are at least thousands of shops in the district and it can potentially take one weeks to explore them all!
You can find almost anything here. From live goats to type-C charger adaptors, currency exchange to fresh black currents, Toyota minibus straight six engines to Swim Suits Editions, just name it and someone will pull it out of the depths of their shops. While the general area is mind-bogglingly large, the souk is divided into sections, such as one general area where most of the nuts sellers congregate, and then another area for textiles, live animals, pottery, electronics, restaurants, etc, so it is not exactly the most difficult experience to navigate: you just have to ask for general directions.
Prices for foreigners like us were definitely on the high side compared to those offered to locals, so bargaining with Chinese passion was mandatory. Even so, you have to be careful of the counterfeits and low quality goods. My father is not exactly a spice expert, so he purchased a bag of what looked like high-grade saffron, but it turned out to be corn husks dyed with an almost-indistinguishible hue.
There are a few tanneries too, which produce specialties of the mountains such as authentic belts, bags, purses and more. The one huge downside with those districts are the constant smell of chemicals used to treat the pelts, but they are one of the few remaining traditional leather producing districts in the world that is not a factory with large fume stacks. However, due to safety concerns, I only took my parents to the outer edges of it.
For some interesting attractions outside the very center of the old city, I took my parents to the ancient tombs of the Saadian kings. They are the rulers of these lands during the dark ages, and they frequently used a plot south of the city walls for the burial of kings.
Unlike their contemporaries in Egypt, China, or Europe, the Saadians were buried in humble blocks of rocks, with minimal inscriptions describing their life achievements or identity. For more than 100 graves in the small compound, there are no identifying information at all, with just ceramic tiles sealing the tomb. Yet some of the halls are lavishly decorated, with the most famous being Chamber of Twelve Columns. This is a large room with beautiful natural light coming from the top and ivory white decorations everywhere, truly a refreshing take on the brown-and-browner color palette in local commoners’ architecture.
Eventually, the tombs fell out of use as the dynasty declined, and this walled complex was quickly forgotten. After centuries of disrepair, these magnificent halls became a run down walled section in the middle of Marrakesh that nobody knew what it was about. It was not “rediscovered” until the French came to form a Morrocan protectorate, and the French archeologists quickly got to work on this treasure trove of lost history. They spend decades meticulously repairing the damaged tiles, and deciphering the identities of most named residents, and thanks to them, we finally have the opportunity to see the Saadian tombs in all its glory.
Up next, the grandiose palace built by the grand visier of Morroco Ahmed Ben Moussa during late 19th century called Bahia Palace. Bahia means brilliance, so you can see this de-facto ruler of the land was not messing around when he conceived the idea.
Besides a lavishly decorated garden filled to the brink with banana flowers and orange trees, the most impressive space in the palace is the gigantic inner courtyard. Built for his personal harem, the 12 rooms open up to the center of the airy space, each housing 2 concubines. Yes, besides the 4 wives of equal status housed in a different complex, this man also had 24 concubines on rotation, what a life!
The 3-story walls also enclosed the vizier’s own quaters, complete with a business center, a working area, a library, and a winter section without any window as they leak the coldness inside. There is also a school dedicated for his own children. You know, when you have 28 girls who you can claim as your own, it is not hard to father an entire school of children. The school also had another purpose as the prayer place facing Mecca five times a day. The 4 wives do not share rooms, as they have equal status and each has an equally large compound adjacent to Ahmed’s.
I personally suspect this is because of Ahmed’s personal grudge. He was described as a fat and short man, as well as someone having generally unattractive facial features. After he escorted his underage nephew onto the throne, he virtually took over the power as the grand vizier. To spite all them haters, he constructed what he described as a “palace the world has never seen before”, and here you go, Bahia Palace. Sadly his horrible governing skills and lack of political acumen led Morroco deeper into an economic downturn and further exacerbated the country’s dependence on foreign powers, especially the French.
El Badi Palace
However, on the other side of palace attractiveness spectrum, you have the me of all the palaces: El Badi. What was once a lavishly decorated seat of power has now become the lonely homes of storks and lizards, with only a trace of its bygone brilliance hidden in the potholed walls. It is a piece of history that sits just a few blocks from Jemaa el-Fnaa, but only very few have not forgotten about the glory of the Saadian empire.
Hundreds of little pavilions, the center gardens, huge banquet halls, and many other beautiful rooms only now exist in the legends. What we saw was large courts of holes perfect for pigeons, and their top side perfect for storks making nests nearly 2 floors tall. After the death of Saadian dynasty, the ensuing Alaouite dysnasty intentionally stripped this palace down to the bones for a new construction in the new capital, and only partial reconstructions were made to clean out the debris as well as to re-establish the tunnels underneath the palace grounds. Nowadays, you can walk around and imagine the opulance that used to grace the kings and their concubines.
Dar Si Saïd Museum
Not too far from Bahia Palace, hidden in the maze-like alleys of the old quarters, sits Dar Si Saïd Museum. This is one of the best museums in the entire nation, boasting the highest quality handicrafts and arts scoured from the entirity of Morroco. We paid a little visit to this former noblemen’s house, and surely was not disappointed.
High Atlas mountain jewelleries, room-width carpets, oil lamps with the most detailed carvings, and local Marrakesh leatherworks, all populated the small corridors of this century-old house, which made the viewing experience exceptionally soothing. Sadly most of the items appeared to be too foriegn to my parents, as they struggled to find artistic value in a small ceramic tile carved with Berber symbols. Yet they enjoyed the ambiance and the different styles immensely, as my father put it: thank god it is not churches after churches!
High Atlas Mountains
It would be a shame to visit Marrakesh without paying a homage to the legendary Atlas Mountains. Sitting just behind the horizons from any vantage point in the city, this series of mountains boasts the title of the tallest mountain range in north Africa, with its tallest peak being 4100+m above sea level. The cultural heritage and history here is one of the richest in the world, and the local produce is extremely precious. So let’s embark on a journey through these beautiful lands, and find out what she, and her beautiful people, have on offer for us!
First stop on our road trip is a small pit stop near the road, where one can overlook a valley onto a Berber village. These are the indiginous people of these lands, who were the first to adopt Islam during the Islamization of the Maghreb after the classic antiquities. They are also the ones who invaded Iberian Peninsula during the 8th century, and their actions left visible marks on Spain even until today, as one can see in the last journal about Sevilla. Nowadays, after decades of marginalization, they are finally allowed to speak their own language in universities and official situations, and the 10 million Berbers in Morroco can finally breathe a sigh of relief: they are acknowledged as the owners of their homes. (Berber speakers comprise nearly 50% of Morroco population!) From here on south, most of the people we were about to encounter are all Berbers, who are proud of their traditions and have adapted into the lifestyles of the high mountains extremely well.
One thing we gotta do was riding a camel. Duh! We are in Morroco and how come we do not participate in this national sport? And funnily, the tour guide dressed my family up for the situation, allowing us to turn into the Arab version of ourselves! We sat down by the typically Islamic tent, and sipped mint tea, while camels were brought to us from the nearby fields of grass. Riding camels was never a concern of mine until I saw how large and clumsy these beasts are. Some of them also have quite a bad temper, scoffing off the trainer like he was nothing. They were chained by ropes into a line in order to control them better, and in order to ride them, they had to be coerced to kneel down, or otherwise they were way too tall to mount.
Riding camels means slow, wobbly and generally stressful transportation, so I would not recommend it as a typical city commuting method. However, it was genuinely fun to be on a line of camels walking in the middle of nowhere, as we were seemingly the only prominent things in the entire world.
We passed by mountains, crossed streams, wandered through large fields, and eventually reached a small settlement under the large foothills of the Great Atlas. It was a touristy little pit stop designed for showcasing the local specialty: argan oil and its products. Remember those weird photos of a dozen goats standing on top of a desert tree? Yep, that is an argan tree, native to Morroco and the Berber people. This is one of their lifelines during the dry seasons, and the oil extracted from the fruit is extremely useful in their daily lives.
To extract the oil, the local ladies have to peel away the flesh and crack open the core, which reveals a few small seeds that then need to be grinded down to a pulp and filtered. Machine has not been able to do this efficiently, so argan oil extraction is still a very labor-intensive process. Someone a few years ago came up with the brilliant idea of using this oil to make products suitable for tourists, so suddenly the scene of Morrocan argan oil exploded. Oil soap, hand creams, facial masks, night cream, champoo, etc., lined the shelves of this small settlement, yet the beauty-related properties of argan has not been confirmed.
Yet for me, I prefer to enjoy this superfood in its traditional format: as a dip for the bread. Some mint tea, a piece of oven baked bread, dipped straight through a large bowl of freshly filtered oil, yum! The brown paste is also a local favorite: argan oil mixed with grounded almonds. While my mother was busy picking out the world-unique beauty products coming straight from the village, I downed an entire loaf of bread as if it was nothing.
A short drive later, we reached the heart of Atlas: Imlil. A small old settlement comprised of seven villages dotted around the valley, this Berber town has turned itself into the headquarters of Hight Atlas tourism. Thanks to its proximity to the French mountain hut en route to Jebel Toubkal, this is the ideal place to begin your trek towards the highest mountain in North Africa.
The 4167m/13670ft Toubkal is what the topographers call an ultra-prominence, which means that this is the highest point of nearly 2000km in every direction. It is virtually impossible to avoid seeing this majestic mountain from the village, and its peak is an easy 2-day trek from the end of the road nearby, making it highly accessible. The villagers welcomed us with oerwhelming hospitality, even though we were the vast minority of the tourists here not for summitting Toubkal. It is still a rare sight for a group of Chinese walking in the rurual High Atlas I guess.
We spent nearly three hours hiking around the valley, where seven villages dotted around the area echoed each other in daily prayers with their respective mosques. On the little mountain trails, a few ladies were busy trimming the walnut trees everywhere, while some others were knitting the world-famous High Atlas carpets for sale. The area, albeit inundated by tourism, still appeared quite original and authentic, as old horse riders hurried home against comically unsafe public “buses” to the nearby villages. We eventually climbed over some small foothills and reached a nice little waterfall for a quick face rinse.
After our hike, we returned to the major settlement for some food, where large terraces faced directly towards the majestic mountains. We had the classic tajine while basking under the highland sun. Imlil sits at nearly 2000 meters above sea level, and had quite an ultraviolet blast on our skin. Yet it was all worth it, because look at it! When people talk about Morroco, people think abut the blue-and-whie tiles, large mosques, endless Sahara, and probably the beautiful lights in souks, but nobody suspects that these majestic mountains are equally representative of this nation, same as the Berbers who inhabited these holy lands for thousands of years. You may call it a place that lives in the shadows of her more-famous bretherens, or as I would like to Latin-fy it: Atlas Obscura.
After lunch, we were invited by our guide to visit hus house for a little cup of tea, mint tea of course. It was our first time being able to visit a true local’s adobe. Per typical traditions, there were not many fancy items in this devout Sunni Muslim family, and the simple guest room had very little to offer other than a large local carpet and a small window.
While my parents were visibly disappointed, I did not mind at all. While the facilities are not exactly on par with Peninsula hotels, it was at least genuine and authentic. Knowing that I was not treated differently because I somehow did not belong, I received all I wanted. Finally, we slowly made our way back towards Marrakesh, passing by more river valleys and Berber villages. This is a memorable road trip thanks to its beautiful scenery, cultural heritage, and Berber hospitality. High Atlas, what a wonderful name, befitting such a wonderful region…
We ended our 5 days in Marrakesh with a juice in Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza, and boarded the Iberia flight back to Madrid. It may sound weird, but I do not miss Marrakesh at all. Because it is just one of the places that you know you will be back, like a little regular vacation hotspot in the back of your mind constantly, so why miss it? Missing something is only for when you have lost it, but for Morroco, and Marrakesh, I do not think I will lose them any time soon. As for my parents, I was very surprised that they were very happy with our little detour in North Africa: no fuss, no demands for Chinese food, and no constant complaints about the low sanitation standards. I think it was their way of expressing their satisfaction for this country of unparalleled stories.
This would bring us near the end of our adventures as a family during this trip, as we would have a few more days in Madrid before my parents return back to Canada. However, I was determined to make it work, as I am a person who would make the most out of every day in this world, so what strange travel experiences would I cook up in the next episode, go and find out!
Three things cause sorrow to flee: water, green trees and a beautiful face.old Berber proverb