It was about two weeks before Labor Day of 2019 when I found out we were going to Morocco. Out of the 53 countries I’ve visited, Morocco is the first African country I’ve been to, and I was exceptionally excited to explore another continent. I did a bit of research about Morocco by watching some videos about an itinerary from Marrakech to the Sahara. I was looking forward to going to the dunes, villages, and the camels there. One desert they mentioned was the Zagora desert, which was one that you could visit on a day trip if you woke up early enough. I also wanted to go to the Merzouga desert, which appeared as stark as the Sahara, but it said it would take a while to get there. I also hoped to see one of the riads, which, according to my dad, is a super fancy hotel, but Moroccan-style. Marrakech, the city we were going to, is known for its riads, but it also hosts some sprawling markets, which are called souks. The videos I watched mainly focused on the spice markets, and it was impressive to see all of those spices that I didn’t even recognize. We were also going to Aït-Ben-Haddou, which is an old Berber fortress made of mud, on top of a hill where many Hollywood movies were shot. Because Aït-Ben-Haddou is in the Atlas Mountains, we had to pack a lot of warm clothes, but the rest of the nation is rather mild, so we packed a lot more clothes than we would’ve needed if we weren’t going to the Atlas Mountains.
Morocco is in UTC+0, so if you’re from the east coast, you can expect a five-hour time difference. I also knew that Moroccans speak French and Berber, I didn’t know how many speak English, but with all of this knowledge, I knew this was about to be a memorable trip.
We’d packed our bags the day before, and we were ready for the flight, so we called the Taxi and, as usual. We went to our airport, spotted our terminal and checked in with Royal Air Maroc, as we were going from Washington Dulles Airport to Marrakech via Casablanca, Morocco, the airline’s hub. It was a little hard to find our check-in spot because Royal Air Maroc is a smaller airline owned by the Moroccan government, but we found it in the end. We passed through security, as usual, and then proceeded to the B gates. Because of our preparation before, we had enough time to go to the Turkish Airlines lounge, which I can confidently tell you is the best airline lounge I’ve ever been to overall. Aside from the lovely Turkish food (it’s Turkish Airlines), there are TVs, but the detail that seals the deal is the computers that you can play games on when you’re there. Instead of being bored, hungry, and weary, staying in the lounge keeps you content, full, and drowsy. We camped in the lounge until the flight was ready for boarding. After eight hours of pure boredom, we’d finally arrived at our destination, Morocco.
We entered Casablanca airport, which was decorated well. We went to a lounge there, which was a standard lounge: food, drinks, plus a ton of furniture. We thought it was time to go to our gate, and left, only to find that it was closed. The funny part was why the delay happened: there was no fuel in the plane, so the pilot literally had to go out and buy some fuel, though, at that time, it didn’t feel as funny. But the most significant shock I had was when I saw the plane. It had a strange resemblance to an aircraft from the 1950s. It was a two and two configuration airplane – meaning two seats on both sides of the aisle. You might think that doesn’t sound so bad, but believe me, it was cramped. I was also really scared because the plane wasn’t jet-powered; it was a propeller-powered plane. Luckily, though, the flight was less than an hour, as it was only a regional flight, but it remained a little scary. Thankfully, though, we landed at our eventual destination unharmed.
As we entered the warm climate of Morocco and exited the cold AC of the airport, I thought about the bustling markets in the videos I’d watched. In comparison, the setting sun illuminated a desolate-looking city. There were no markets, and the streets felt lifeless. The sole source of action were the roads, which were bustling in comparison. The area wasn’t without its surprises, however, and on the way to the hotel, we saw a camel, which I was looking forward to. Our hotel was a surprisingly luxurious Marriott near the center of the city, and it was quite the stay. The hotel housekeepers stocked the bathrooms up with argan oil body wash and shampoo, the hotel had breakfasts for free, and we could finally sleep in a comfortable bed. There was even tea being served and tart, refreshing lemonade. Though our hotel was excellent, the primary purpose we were here was to explore the country, so that night, we strolled past the streets towards Marrakech’s medina, otherwise known as the center of any Islamic city.
The trail to the medina was crowded with tourists, casinos, locals, and there were even several camels in the mix. The air was fresh; the people were welcoming and friendly as we approached our destination. Only one obstacle separated us from the medina: the road. Surrounding the medina was a three-lane road that blocked our way, and for a second, I thought we would have to cross the road with a green light on since in some third world countries. The pauses are so uncoordinated there that you’ll have to cross six lanes of a busy street, twice, where some drivers don’t even consider stopping for you. That was an experience that I hope never to repeat.
We entered the walls of the medina where there were much fewer cars, but a lot more foot traffic. The first place we visited was the Kasbah mosque, which is a West African style mosque near the souks. We saw the mosque, and it was remarkably unique. It wasn’t the size or grandeur of the mosque: I had seen similar amounts of beauty too much in Europe. What set it apart was its architecture, which was neither Greek, like in DC, nor the classical/Renaissance style I’d been used to seeing in Europe, nor was it Russian, which I had seen a lot of on my last trip. Berber Northern African architecture was a new source of amazement in my life, and it was amazing to think about how it was done. In the late 1100s, when it was built, nobody had as advanced tools as we have now. Next to the mosque, there were little ruins with mosaic patterns on them, and I could see the mosaics because I had read about them. I remembered how the Islamic artists used lapis lazuli, a rare blue dye to color the mosaics such a vibrant color. The flamboyance of the mosque set it apart from the countless European cathedrals, palaces, and churches. In contrast to the Kasbah mosque, the cathedrals looked like a chameleon’s grave. Even the prayers made the churches look like amateurs; they were so loud. “ALLAHU AKBAR!” a cry radiated from the mosque that echoed through the crowd and into the packed souk that was now within our vantage point.
We exited the main square and entered the labyrinth that contained the souks of Marrakech. Smells of incense, spices, and food wafted through the air. We could barely hear each other over the noises of the market: thousands of overlapping conversations, and the banter of vendors selling their goods. We squeezed through the main road, which was jam-packed with restaurants, shops, and souvenir sellers. We recognized Bollywood music blaring in the streets above all the commotion. As our family is from India, we were surprised to hear the sounds of our homeland in Africa. We asked a man in a fruit stall if Bollywood was popular. “Oh, yeah. Salman Khan is remarkably popular here. He visited Morocco recently,” he replied. It surprised my parents, and it was comforting to hear a familiar tune evocative of home. But we quickly remembered that we were in Morocco, so we needed to use our time wisely. We left the fruit stall and went to explore the market.
We passed multiple restaurants and dined in one. The restaurant that appeared to have been put up only for the market, and it was the type that has tables and chairs, but they’re all plastic, and only shaded by a tent. We requested a Moroccan Salad and tried it. In my opinion, the salad just wasn’t that great, but that’s because I feel all salads are the same. I guess not all taste buds are born alike. For now, though, we had to explore the souks, which in of itself was a task that should have taken at least a week, and at most a year. To give you a perspective of how big they were, I think we explored about one-twentieth of the souk, and it took us eight hours in total, at night when it wasn’t that hot.
The souks, minimally organized at its inception, where we could tell where a shop ended and where another one started. Yet after reaching the innards of its essence, the souk was practically a city of its own, packed with people buying and selling incense, nuts, souvenirs, everything imaginable. We ventured deeper into the smaller tributaries of the souk but constantly tracked where we were going. We would have gotten lost about ten times if Kasbah Mosque hadn’t been in the skyline, leading to the winding route to the hotel.
The souk started with the souvenirs, then changed to a restaurant city, and then morphed into little niche souks themselves. For two nights, we went to a jewelry area, a spice market, and almost went to the tanneries, but we decided not to go due to the pungent smell. One constant in the souks, though, was the architecture: buildings made of mud brick or clay, and modern brick buildings dominated the market landscape.
Eventually, we discovered a restaurant and decided to eat some more Moroccan food, and it tasted rich and earthy. The main courses were called tajines; bread that you dip into a choice of vegetable or meat soup (I’m vegetarian) with spices that I had a sneaky suspicion also came from the markets. It tasted great.
My dad and I both appreciated the bread served with our meal. The bread that was made as a bowl for tajine was tough and tasted like flatbread that you might find in Egypt. The Berber bread, which is served in most Moroccan meals, is called Khobz, and it somehow tastes a little different from average bread. It’s a bit more earthy, and a bit more flavorful than most European bread. The way I ate the tajine bread was I ripped the Khobz bread into small pieces and then dipped them into the tajine soup. When it was done, I ate the vegetables in the bowl. In the end, it tasted like my expectations.
The restaurant was about three levels, and at the top of it, there was a balcony where you could see some of the markets. For as far as the eye could see, there was light, and I could imagine what it would’ve looked like years before. The lights of modern Morocco shone through the darkness. Still, I could imagine the same scene from centuries previously, illuminated by candles and kerosene lamps: people trading, haggling for their money.
After our meal, we experienced one of the more shocking moments of our trip, which started as a usual walk in the market. We minded our own business, seeing what there was to buy and just getting our legs some exercise. We had just sat down for a moment to rest our legs, and we were ready to walk some more, but the roar of motorcycles interrupted us. We quickly got out of the way, but I was shocked the government didn’t take any extra measures to protect its pedestrians. Then I recalled how the market opened every night and the size of the market, so it would probably be a pretty hard task, considering how many people came to the market. Then another motorcycle followed them shortly after. And another. It was all wasting our time and was slightly annoying, but it could have gone worse. Incidents like that recurred, but in the end, the shock wore off. I suppose that’s why nobody else had such a strong reaction compared to mine. In America, though, there would be no way for this to happen because one: there aren’t any markets in the USA like the souks, and two, the police would arrest anyone that ever attempted that.
After two entire days of traversing the markets, we were finally going to visit Aït-Ben-Haddou, the fortress known for being in the movies. Aït-Ben-Haddou was in “The Mummy,” “Gladiator,” “Alexander,” “Prince of Persia,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Game of Thrones.”. Due to all of this, and of course, its natural beauty, Aït-Ben-Haddou is now a tourist site. But Aït-Ben-Haddou was two hours away, and that’s assuming favorable weather and road conditions, which I didn’t expect, considering the roads in Marrakech, a principal city of the nation. Hence, we decided to hire a driver. The next day, we woke up early and packed our bags for a day trip.
The trip there was filled with fantastic scenery and views. The Atlas Mountains were a lot taller than I imagined them. When many people, including myself at one point, thought about Africa, they pictured poverty, rainforests, and deserts. What people didn’t imagine was a prosperous nation with arable land and lots of mountains. But that was the essence of Morocco, and it was quite different from my expectations. I was expecting to see some argan oil, but up to that point, we hadn’t found anyone selling argan oil in the markets, and it wasn’t anywhere else, except for the body wash in the hotel, which ironically had argan oil in it.
But during the journey to Aït-Ben-Haddou, we stopped at a place selling argan oil as a souvenir. Some women cracked the argan nuts and were making it into a paste. The sweet yet earthy and uniquely Arabian fragrance was everywhere when we entered the shop, and the people there explained how argan oil is made: how the nuts are dried, cracked, and finally ground into a paste that can be turned into the argan oil that can be used in cosmetics. It was quite interesting to see the way they did it, though, and I’m happy I saw it.
We left the shop after a while and continued towards Aït-Ben-Haddou. Once, we got off and had to close the doors again just because of the wind. Whoever stereotyped Northern Africa as a desert wasteland was wrong and somewhat uninformed. But the Atlas mountains were a wasteland: there was nobody there, and it felt empty and desolate. The rest of the nation, however, isn’t. We went through the Atlas, and after passing a ton of mud, some rivers, endless mountains, and a little bit of desert, we arrived. Aït-Ben-Haddou.
Well, we were actually a few miles from Aït-Ben-Haddou, but the best view of the fortress was there. We took a few pictures, and the view was simply splendid. It looked like a fortress on a hill, mainly because it was a fortress on a mountain, but it just seemed like it belonged there. The whole hill is covered with earthen houses, and it was fascinating to see a Berber village so untouched by history. Of course, you have to remember that Aït-Ben-Haddou is a significant tourist destination, so of course, it would look a lot more untouched than in reality. It was packed with palm trees and looked more like an oasis than a town in areas. All in all, the city was terrific, but we were going to get more than just a simple photo.
We were going inside Aït-Ben-Haddou. I remember being extremely excited to see the view from the top of the fortress, the inside of the fort, and close to the fortress, but we still had to go the extra mile to get there. Like literally, we had to go one more mile before we got to the fortress. The driver wasn’t allowed to tour Aït-Ben-Haddou, and so a local was going to be our tour guide for Aït-Ben-Haddou. Before we went off to see the fortress, though, we had to bribe my little sister to stay quiet with ice cream. My sister was quite quiet during the trip, and it probably had to do with the ice cream we were giving her and the hotel being so comfortable. But after being denied both for hours at a time, she was about to burst. After getting the ice cream, we continued to a road that I didn’t know was there. We followed our guide through the backroads, wondering how we would get to the fortress ahead. The guide knew what he was doing, and led us through some more obscure roads that looked like they should only be legally used by motorcycles, and through some tunnels, and in the end, we saw our route.
The final destination was linked by a bridge that was standing above knee-depth waters that reflected an overcast sky. The air of Ait Ben Haddou was much clearer than in Marrakech, and I could smell air not affected by the heat of the city or the scents and stenches of the markets. The bridge that connected the sides of the river looked quite unnecessary to me, but according to our guide, it was much more full in the rainy season, which had just started. We entered the town next to the fortress, and you could quite clearly tell this was the attraction, and across the river, the bigger city was the one that supported all of the logistics. The town was called Ait Ben Haddou, explained our tour guide, and the famous fortress that stood atop of it was called Kasbah, so it was called “The Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou.” The town of Ait Ben Haddou was a town, unlike what I had ever seen. All of the houses were made of mud-brick; it radiated a sense of timelessness, and it was very well preserved. Our tour guide took us past the bridge, and we finally got to see Ait Ben Haddou. I was surprised to see that even though there was a similar structure of houses between Ait Ben Haddou and Marrakech, Ait Ben Haddou hosted some surprises that were truly unique to popular tourist destinations, movie scenes, and scorching lands: tunnels, secret balconies, concealed stairs, and a host of other features you wouldn’t have assumed would be on the way. One of the surprises on the road were the tunnels. We entered them with no sense of the direction we were heading in and exited at an entirely new place. One theme was the mud-brick architecture owing to the Berber style. A mud-brick house would keep you warm in winter and cool in summer, which was essential before the advent of air conditioning. Another theme was the grandeur of the buildings there, which was not visible from behind the river.
The buildings had looked so small when we were at the outpost taking photos of the buildings, and yet it felt so big looking at them from nearby. It didn’t feel possible, yet it was real. The air grew colder as we gained altitude, and we were finally able to see the fortress. From far, it looked quite imposing, being the only edifice upon the giant hill, but from closer by, it seemed less impressive. Imagine how we felt when we discovered that the height of the fortress was fake, but was only appealing that way because of a massive wall that led to the actual fort, which paled in comparison. We still decided to climb up, though, and we saw a great view of the desert landscape below us. On a clear day, the view might have been more spectacular, but today was unusually overcast and gloomy, and we hoped as much as we could that it wouldn’t rain. At that point, bad luck struck us again, as my sister had pooped in her diaper. We were prepared, though, and after being frustrated a bit for her not going to the bathroom earlier, we got our spare diaper (in my mom’s bag), and we changed it. But soon, the overcast sky would turn into a drizzle, forcing us to head back home with our memories.
The drive back home was quite like the drive there, but the mud slowed us down considerably. I was tired after such a strenuous day of traveling, and that made time speed past. I might have slept on the way back, but honestly, I don’t remember much except the abundance of mud on the way back to the city.
The next day was marked by waking up late, and not doing much until about 3:00 pm, which was probably a mistake, considering that was the hottest time of the day, but we wanted to see what the city looked like before evening. My dad took us towards the spice markets, where we were able to see some more spices, and the market seemed to have lost most of its vibrance because of the pure lack of people there. Living in Marrakech means becoming a night owl. I also noticed the lack of activity in store buildings. There was about one-twentieth of the nighttime crowd at this time of day, I could barely tell where the stores were, and the few I could see didn’t seem very active, or were tourist shops. I underestimated the importance of the tourism industry in Marrakech, as it looked so real. Still, looking back, I don’t know how I could have possibly ignored the abundance of casinos in the city or the massive percentage of people selling souvenirs.
One lesson if you travel a lot is where the tourist sites are, and where the tourist traps are. I’d consider Neuschwanstein palace in Germany a tourist trap, as the interior of the castle was unfinished, not too big, and there are about ten times the amount of tourists in the palace as any other in Germany. But putting Europe, castles, and dungeons aside, the real question was if Marrakech was a tourist trap. I’d say no.
Firstly, I would never consider anything more extensive than the National Mall (which is impressive; you can’t miss it). An area of that size would be too much of a city and would have too much of a population to be considered as a tourist trap. Secondly, the city had too many citizens compared to the tourists in the nation. The Vatican can be regarded as a tourist trap (if you aren’t there for religious reasons), because of the crazy tourist to citizen ratio. However, I disagree because St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel are the only places for tourists to go to the nation. The crazy amount of pickpockets in the area doesn’t help either. Comparatively, there are much fewer tourists in the area, much fewer pickpockets, though you still have to be careful, and many more genuine people. Based on these parameters, Marrakech is not a tourist trap.
We went past the spice markets, and my dad led us to a road that was even smaller than the one at Ait Ben Haddou, which was minuscule. As I began to wonder where my dad was leading me, we traveled down the dusty road, which surely didn’t get that much traffic, as it was quiet except for children playing in the street. My dad turned again, this time to an even smaller road that was suspiciously well kept: even though you could see the dust on the way, it lacked any trace of potholes. I examined Morocco in my imagination: small paths that left no sense of where I was, leading to a labyrinth of dusty, yet active rows of mud-brick houses. Then we stopped.
The door we stopped at was clearly for a riad, as indicated by the address. When we entered, I was amazed; the scent of argan oil, spices, and perfume hit the humid air of the riad. My breaths felt strained to do because of the crazy concentration of water. Why it was concentrated so much, I will never know. My dad must have read up on this riad because he knew exactly where it was, how to get there, and when it was open. We took pictures of the fantastic indoor pool: it might sound a little boring, but trust me, the pool was striking. It was adorned with Moroccan plants, and it was surprisingly pleasant to look at, and it just felt like a Moroccan Riad. The person at the entrance was friendly enough to show us the whole riad and took us up through the stairs, past the ornately decorated second floor, where I assume guests of the riad would stay for the night, and to the balcony, where I finally saw the city I was visiting in whole.
I could see the homes of almost a million from the top of the building, and I wondered how much control the government must have exerted to make each dwelling of mud-brick. In Switzerland, there is a law in some regions that mandates what outsiders call the stereotypical swiss house in the tourist regions of the nation. There must have been a similar ordinance in Marrakech where everyone had to have a mud-brick house to live there. The final result left some of the city looking like it was from the year 1000 AD, while the rest of the town seemed rather unorganized and quite poor looking for the year 2020. The rows of mud-brick just didn’t go well with some of the houses, many of them featuring satellite dishes, so they looked like an anachronistic mixture of old and new. It seemed to look very poor because, within those buildings, some houses in construction just looked abandoned. Perhaps this phase of ugliness is part of the adolescence of a city destined to grow at a speed that only might hamper the looks of it. We went back down to the stairs and enjoyed the hospitality of the riad, where they offered us Moroccan hats to wear, along with Moroccan tea and cookies. Of course, I only ate the cookies because I’m not allowed to drink caffeine. I was getting a little tired of the riad, my sister was getting a little moody, and I didn’t see why we should have stayed. Of course, my parents thought the opposite.
After a lot of boredom, cookies, and many conversations, we left the riad. We went back home for the day and took some rest for our last day in Morocco. The next day, we went back to the city. We had covered mosques, souks, and riads, so now we had to visit a palace. I had heard about Andalusia’s castles, and I thought that the Moroccan palaces would be similar because of the geographic proximity and cultural ties during the period, but the first place we went to, which was a ruin with a lot of mosaics in it. The structure looked very ancient from the viewing area, which was just a slab of concrete atop the ruins, which in of itself were rather small. Of course, they were slightly big, but just not the size of the amazing places we were visiting. Next to the mosaics, though, were a lot of artifacts from Morocco that looked very interesting. It also had the typical tourist board, which told some history of the ruins. Unfortunately, some of the boards were in French, and I wanted a full picture of what the place was about, but to my surprise, my dad was able to decipher it because he took French. It was entertaining to see what he knew, and the boards were pretty big, so I probably learned a bit during that time too. The other activity we did there, of course, was taking pictures. My mom had seen a fantastic image on Instagram, and it looked quite striking, but we failed to replicate it in our experience. The lighting just wasn’t quite right, and I have a feeling that they overprocess the photos on Instagram, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t go as well as planned. We were still a little disappointed by the ruins, but we were still able to see some a few hours later.
We took a break at the hotel and went to the El Badi Palace, which was from the 15th century. The palace was an hour from closing, so we had to explore it very quickly. When we saw the castle, I was somewhat disappointed that it was in construction, and looked a bit dilapidated from the outside. They were making a stage for some concert, and unfortunately, this meant that the whole area was obstructed, and rather ugly. The upside was that there were more areas of the palace than that, and they were gorgeous. Upon entering, we took photos of the courtyard of the castle, which appeared artificial. Dotted with areas with trees in it, it all looked overdone. It seemed as if the Moroccan government was taking inspiration from Europe and constantly renovating the artifacts of their past. The fire at the Notre Dame happened because of too much renovation. An accident is bound to happen if you’re restoring the church every single year. It seemed the same situation here. We took pictures of the too white buildings, walked upon the too polished ground, and looked around at the most easily accessible areas. It also seemed a little suspicious that there were very few people in the palace. It looked pleasant, and the tourism industry was massive in Marrakech. I looked around at the buildings there for a while. Then, disaster struck: my sister had an accident, and we wouldn’t have enough time to change her diaper and explore the palace. My mom and I would examine the innards of the castle, and my dad was left changing my sister’s diaper.
The interior of the palace was amazing. It seemed to hide a surprise within its walls, which was the slightly ruined features of the palaces and the lovely mosaics on the floor that went only too well with the mud brick. We saw what I discovered was a bathhouse with some inspiring designs, and looked around. Overall, it was exciting to see all of this historical architecture. We took so many pictures of the area; I can’t even remember the number. Overall, it was amazing to see the vivid designs, but it was beautiful seeing an artifact of history so old look so new.
We left the palace and went to eat. My dad told us he knew a place to go, and so we followed him through the city. In the end, we were looking at a restaurant that seemed slightly run-down and not appealing at all, and I was feeling very unsure of it. Then we entered the restaurant. I was taken aback. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t believe the outside looked so bad. There was fancy lighting, colored tablecloths, the whole show. It was such a surprise; I didn’t know what to say. But I remembered this was a restaurant, and so the waiter showed the way to our table as I looked around the restaurant in awe. The food was average; the tajine, soup, and bread. But the decorations were so exquisite, the quality of the food was irrelevant. The whole experience was surreal, and after eating our food and leaving, I looked back to see if the outside was a trick of the light.
We finally went back to the hotel, and that day, we had to accept that we were leaving Morocco. It was a great trip fit for a great country like Morocco.
Morocco is a vibrant nation with various influences from its history, and is the ideal destination for the adventurous traveler who doesn’t mind a little discomfort when travelling if it means getting to see the true culture of the nation. The rumble of the streets, the advantages of walking, the secrets of the palaces, and the winding roads of the souks, which too often pass the typical pickpocketer, don’t suit a relaxed style of travel for a more commercialized nation. However, the fruits of discomfort and pain come in the incomparable sights of the nation: the menacing fortress of Ait Ben Haddou, mosaics from lands afar, unseen architecture, and a palace disguised as a decaying restaurant. Morocco holds them all.
- The night is your friend. I enjoyed the night better overall when we were traveling, and unlike in Europe, nights are rather long in summer, and using them is necessary. If we didn’t explore the souks at night, we would have been too tired to continue the next day. You might even get dehydrated if you stay out in countries like Morocco if you don’t take advantage of the evening hours.
- Beware of pickpockets: Near the souks, and where there is a high population density, pickpockets are quite common. To defend against them, always wear your backpack on your tummy so you can see it at all times.
- Use your legs: Many of the trips we took from the hotel to the medina were marred with noise but were a treat for my eyes. The gardens on the way were worthwhile to get lost in, and I feel that I would if we didn’t have to see the Medina.
- Remember to pack cold clothes to Ait Ben Haddou as the wind and the altitude really lowers the temperature.
- Don’t miss the Souks, as they are the perfect place to experience vibrant Moroccan culture.