A video memoir of Morocco

This is a little memoir of a 7 day road trip across Morocco with two girls I had just met at a hostel. We had no plans but to see the Sahara and almost no concept for a video.

The result is a series ridiculous spontaneous events. Some highlights of our trip included attending a Berber wedding, visiting cave nomads, holding one day old baby goats, and losing our car keys for a while in a squatty potty.

A big part of our trip was shaped by the locals, their hospitality, and the adventures they had in mind. The hospitality of Morocco will blow your mind, as will the terrain.

Here is a collection of moments from one of the best unplanned weeks of my life.

A Morocco desert adventure in 20 stunning images

BEFORE AND AFTER my trip into the Moroccan desert I spent some time in Marrakech. As a photographer, everywhere I looked was a photo opportunity. History, architecture, colours, people, and culture make wonderful subjects. It’s hard to condense this experience into a short photo essay; it’s a place that must be visited. But here is my attempt.

[Note: Paul was a guest of Merzouga Desert Luxury Camps in partnership with The Sahara Experience, Riad Tawargit, and Les Jardins de Mouassine.]

1

Orange glow in the distance

The journey to Merzouga from Marrakech is about 600km, give or take a few stops. After eight hours in the car, snaking along the long black tarmac road through to the desert, energy stirred within. Ahead, my guide Khalid and I could finally see the Sand Dunes of Merzouga tower several stories high from the desert floor and glow like a bright orange beacon in the setting sun. They would mark the end of the journey from Marrakech and my home for a few days.

2

Camel ride into the sand dunes

Riding a camel is not an everyday experience. After a 600km journey in a 4×4, a ride on a camel was a very welcome opportunity. My guide Hassan led me up the sand dunes to a high vantage point to view the surroundings. It is a slow and somewhat lumpy ride, and so quiet – it’s perfect for taking in the sandy environment around you. The camels do not make much noise at all and they don’t smell bad either.

3

Dunes casting shadows

As the sun moves overhead, the different angles of the dunes produce different shadows. The sand dunes are like mountains with huge peaks dotted as far as the eye can see. Smooth lines and shadows make everywhere look soft and inviting. Scrabbling to the top is tricky. The loose sand makes each step a challenge and you do wonder if there could be such a thing as a sand avalanche. After what feels like a stair master 12000, it is worth it catching your breath with these views.

4

A closer look at the sand dunes

Crouching down shows a different side to the massive sand banks. There are lines in the sand, similar to those made on a fresh ski slope, that are made by the wind. They can be seen all over the sand dunes and make great patterns with the shadows. The sand dunes actually move a short amount every year where the sand is blown around.

5

Sunset and silhouettes

Groups of tourists and locals gather at the top of the sand dunes that surround the various camps to watch the sky change as the sun sets and to take the perfect ‘Sahara Selfie.’ The camels create a perfect silhouette stomping through the fine sand. It may go without saying, but there is no Wi-Fi in the desert and minimal service. It’ss a great chance to switch off and take in the surroundings. As the dunes provide the highest point, it’s fun to see people checking to see if they have any reception.

6

The search for service

Amazingly it is not just the guests hunting for WiFi. While people are being entertained in their camps, members of staff from surrounding camps head to the top of the dunes searching for signal to get on Facebook or to check the football score. The locals had better success at finding signal than I did.

7

Setting sun over the dunes

As the sun finally sets, huge dark shadows are cast and the dunes turn to a beautiful burnt orange colour. The floral smell of incense burning on the fire pits and Moroccan drumming fills the air from the different camps. It is a serene moment.

8

Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp

There are many different accommodation options in the desert. I stayed here at Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp. It is a small camp set in the middle of a large dune and makes a great subject for spectacular images. First world problems found the moon to be too bright and so the sky was too light to see the Milky Way. The warmth of the camp that accompanies the dark blue of the sky and burnt orange of the sand dunes makes this a surreal experience. The rooms rival a five star hotel with luxury linen, toiletries, and a very powerful shower, only under the most amazing skies.

9

Photography demonstration

Over dinner a discussion was had how it’ss very difficult to make photographs at night. An impromptu photography workshop took place with the local cat as the model. Hard to believe a cat sat still for 20 seconds while demonstrating long exposure photography.

10

A reflective moment

After dinner, a couple left the group to sit at the top of this sand dune to take in the beautiful night sky over Merzouga. Their delight could be heard around the dunes as they saw shooting stars overhead.

11

A line of camels

Camels in the desert are like red buses in London: there is never one when you want one and then ten come along at once. The camel rides are very popular for both sunset and sunrise, and rightly so. A camel ride in the Sahara desert is on many peoples bucket list.

12

Sun rise

Hassan is the young man who hosted the Camel rides from the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp. The camels are well looked after and get a lot of rest in between the tourist runs. A camel is also top of the “I must photograph this in the desert” pictures. The morning light in the desert is amazing and made for a close up silhouette of a boy and his camel.

13

The perfect sunrise

Leaving Hassan and still smiling after a camel has taken me to the top of a sand dune, it is time to hike a little further to find a spot where there are no footprints in the sand, which is easier said than done. After finding a suitable spot, I set up, sit, and wait for the right moment. Riding a camel in sand dunes for an amazing sunrise is an unforgettable experience. When the sun broke the horizon, it was spectacular. My shutter went click while the smile on my face and the warm fuzzy feeling inside me grew bigger.

14

Long shadows

After sunrise, it is time for the camel ride back to camp. Camels are tall and slow. While on my camel I was about six or seven feet above the ground. A couple of people are climbing the sand dunes in the distance, the position as the sun rises makes my camel have an interesting shadow with very long legs.

15

Small person in a big world

While making sunrise pictures in the dunes, it was so peaceful and I felt like the only person in the world. I wasn’t alone. I was very lucky to have this person walk into the frame. It would be very easy to edit this person out but a small person in a big landscape shows how insignificant we can be in this big beautiful world.

16

Tea with a nomad chief

While exploring the outer rim of the dunes, there are lots of nomad camps dotted everywhere. The nomads wander the desert looking after animals and land and making ends meet in any way necessary. It is a very simple life that is very different to the hustle and bustle of the souks 600km away in Marrakech. My friend Khalid and I were passing this nomad and his camp and he invited us to join him for traditional mint tea. Accepting us into his camp, in a world where people are afraid of others that have a different religion or skin colour, we became just three men sitting enjoying a cup of tea whilst escaping the heat. Sitting with Chief, as he is known, was a humbling experience. He allowed us into his home, which is very different to what I know to be a ‘normal’ house, but he has everything he needs. His children were so happy and it made me reflect upon my own life and question my wants and needs. Chief has the luxury of having his family around him as well as the time to spend with them that so many others do not have.

17

Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleam

The Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleam is a stunning garden oasis in the desert. This is the garden to the Mosque that holds the body of Moulay Ali Cherif, considered to be the founder of the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco, the current Royal Family. There are not many of these gardens in the desert and this is worth a quick visit if in the area. I am not a Muslim and so I was not allowed in the Mosque; fortunately I could wander around the garden and stretch my legs for a few minutes.

18

Marrakech views

Before and after your desert experience, take time to explore Marrakech. Its Arabic culture is mixed with French influences, the warm climate and vibrant colours is set amid deep blue skies. Marrakech is so colourful, with different sounds and smells. Vibrant street markets encourage bartering from even the most timid individuals. Exploring the Arabic and Berber architecture, history and religions are all important parts of the fabric. The Hotel Restaurant Café de France offers an amazing viewpoint.

19

Riad in Marrakech

There are accommodation options to suit all budgets; a Riad in the Medina would offer the best cultural and authentic experience over a hotel. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes with an interior courtyard that offer a more personalised stay. Riads are predominantly in the Old Town whereas the hotels are in the New Town area.

20

travelstoke

Some people questioned if Morocco is a safe destination. Apart from a little aggressive selling here and there it was a very friendly experience. Speaking in Arabic, French, and English it is relatively easy to navigate. In Marrakech, the souks are in rather tight little alleyways that can get a little confusing but there are signs pointing you in the right direction. I can’t wait to go back.

The beauty of a Muslim country

All photos by the author

A few years ago, I had the special privilege to travel to Morocco by invitation of the Maison de l’Artisan – with a directive no more precise than to “document the artisans and crafts of the country.” The opportunity was beyond incredible, but in the eyes of some, it was to be feared. Morocco is a Muslim country.

I joined eight other remarkably talented individuals – writers, shop owners, and designers – from Austin and Houston. Along with the outstanding Molly Winters, I would be one of the official photographers because someone else had recently dropped out.

I assume travel to Morocco was regarded as dangerous and unsafe because of its ties to Islam, the established state religion. As a country just a few years separated from the September 11th attacks, we were stricken by a fear of the word “Muslims” because of the media’s all-too-frequent connection to the word “terrorist.”

My parents didn’t want me to go, nor did several other relatives that I spoke with about the opportunity. I remember how caught off-guard I was with that then. And in today’s world, in a climate that seems to be even more accepting of a clenched fist reaction to a religion (that counts nearly a quarter of the world’s population as followers), I am even more so.

I remember what I saw there.

I remember the beauty I felt privileged to witness.

And I remember what I discovered about myself while on the other side of the lens.

Before I was a Creative Director, before I was a graphic designer, and before I was a writer, I was a photographer.

Photography was one of the primary factors that led me on the course to quit my engineering job, and towards my search for creative freedom.

It was something I unknowingly had a knack for. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking “instant art” the first time I went out on a shoot.

I especially enjoyed capturing moments — the unexpected instants of truth when no one is particularly looking. And during this trip, without much setup beyond a Canon 5D Mark III on a leather camera strap, I took some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. But it wasn’t me or the Canon — it was Morocco.

For seven days, I was inspired by a foreign country and an unfamiliar beauty I wasn’t expecting to find.

Though my current role in my business doesn’t often allow for the chance to engage in photography, these photographs remind me of why I started my creative journey.

They remind me of my purpose.

DISCOVERING RABAT AND ESTABLISHING RESPECT

Our first day in Morocco set the tone for me. Upon arrival, we checked in at the government office of our host, the Maison de l’Artisan. We were escorted into a room with ceilings of hand-carved wood, and greeted with silver trays of handmade cookies of uncountable variety. We were treated like diplomats. And the sincerity, warmth and respect they showed all of us, was something I wanted to reciprocate through my photos.

Being personally escorted by the Arts & Tourism division of Morocco was a further revelation of the respect this country had for art, and it left me wishing our own government held these institutions in similar reverence.

Not too far from the official building where we made our introductions was our next destination, the Kasbah des Oudaias. This interior of narrow streets, and whitewashed homes marked with pale shades of blue, was coincidentally built by Muslim refugees from Spain.

Emerging from the walled medina and onto the expansive open-air plaza is a sight that brought forth both emotions of humility and self-regard. Everyone was framed diminutively against the size of the sky around them, yet individually we all had our own space — our own world.

I stood on the edge and admired the colors of the Moroccans’ dress and the independence with which they wore them.

THE HANDS OF CASABLANCA

The next morning we took a one hour bus drive from Rabat to Casablanca — the country’s largest city and headquarters to most of its leading businesses. Our first stop was the Grande Mosquée Hassan II — the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.

On the mosque grounds the light was so perfect that it seemed to possess its own atmosphere. It imparted an ethereal glow and prominence on everyone within it.

Every step we took toward the mosque uncovered more detail. And stepping inside the prayer hall, whose hand-crafted marble walls can embrace over 25,000 worshippers within them, made you feel their religion. It made you realize their devotion — both in the hands that created it, and the hands that have prayed within it.

This inspiring display of Muslim faith is something that all Americans deserve to see.

Located on the same grounds of the mosque was the Complex Artisanal de Casablanca, which seemed to serve as both a monestary and university for learning the traditional skills of the country’s crafts.

The studies we observed ranged from jewelry-making and tile-making, to the art of hand-chiseled wood and plaster. The attentiveness of both student and professor in every classroom showed an enviable reverence. And even though I was surrounded by both the artisans and their finished works, it was still almost impossible to imagine that hands — just like yours and mine — were creating these masterpieces.

In a digital age where everything is so immediate, this dedication to craft was otherworldly.

Surrounded by both the artisans and their finished works, it was still almost impossible to imagine that hands — just like yours and mine — were creating these masterpieces.

SOUKS AND SILKS

Craftsmanship in Morocco is not isolated to institutions on holy grounds. It is also found in the country’s souks — open air marketplaces where you’ll find hand-hammered silver tea sets, leather satchels, silk robes, and Moroccan rugs.

After having explored these bazaars along the city streets, we were treated to a private tour at the Complex Artisanal de Marrakech — another complex of artisans responsible for producing a sizable amount of the country’s exports.

Before taking this trip, my first vision of photographing “authentic artisans in Morocco” was rural and un-industrialized. I never expected to see all of this.

SERVICE AND DINNER CONVERSATION IN THE ESTATE OF A MOROCCAN RUG DEALER

The Ministry of Handicraft had arranged for us to privately tour the estates of rug dealers, cooperatives, and artisan entrepreneurs. I was humbled by the exquisite form of hospitality they all provided (to us as well as our bus driver), and in awe of the tapestries displayed on every wall — like canvases in a gallery hall.

While the interior designers were procuring their selection of rugs by the acre, I explored all the floors of the facility — observing as the family and their butlers prepared a traditional Moroccan meal on the rooftop for their guests. For us.

As we enjoyed dinner, with a view that overlooked the mountains, we had one of our first real chances to talk with the government officials serving as our hosts. I remember how awestruck we were with the respect and knowledge they had about our politics, and about our democracy. They knew about recent policies our president had passed, and shared their perspective on them from their own country’s history.

It was one of the most intelligent and open-minded dinner conversations I’ve ever had.

PERSPECTIVE AND ACCEPTANCE

This experience of Morocco opened my heart and my mind. In seven days, this Muslim nation taught me about dedication, craftsmanship, devotion, hospitality, talent and confidence. I am better for going. I am better for knowing its culture.

And in light of today’s political atmosphere, I can’t help but feel sympathy towards those who let fear interfere with their willingness to really know and understand people from a culture that is different than theirs.

The first step toward change is awareness. And I hope the profound beauty of a Muslim country that I witnessed allows others to see these people from a new perspective.

We are all human.

This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.

Everyone thinks Morocco is dangerous for solo female travelers. Here’s why I can’t wait to go back there.

Photo: Amelia Wells

“One rotten fish can make the whole bucket stink.”

It’s late September in Taghazout, a small surf village on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and I’m sitting at the edge of the world watching the waves crash against the rocks.

I sip strong black coffee and chat with a new friend, the owner of a local backpackers, about safety and misperceptions in Morocco.

He shares the above proverb with me.

For those who work in the tourism industry, that rotten fish (in the form of robberies, political unrest or an isolated attack) is the proverbial boogeyman. Just a whiff of danger and foreigners will cancel their flights. An act of terror (as occurred while I was living in Kenya)? Total disaster for the industry.

But I don’t want to tell you what happens when the fear-mongers win. I want to tell you why you shouldn’t listen to them in the first place.

Every place in the world has a rotten fish—often many.

They’re the reason people tell women not to travel solo to India, Zanzibar, Turkey, Morocco, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-unsafe-country-of-choice.

“It’s not safe.”
“Men don’t respect women there.”
“It won’t be pleasant.”

I’ve heard it all.

I (and just about every woman ever) learned since birth to fear. Fear attack. Fear violence. Fear bad men. Fear everything, right? Society teaches us that.

And it’s true. Of course it’s true! The world is a scary place. Especially for women. We’re working on it, but we have a long way to go. Change, however, has never happened when we stick to the status quo. Fear-mongering doesn’t keep us safe; it keeps us the same. So if you want something different, you have to ignore the fear-mongers.

That’s what I did. Here are seven reasons they were wrong and I can’t wait to go back to Morocco:

1. Berber hospitality is unparalleled.

Within days of my arrival, I was enjoying home-cooked meals with new friends’, cosily sipping tea in roadside cafes, and exchanging words of greeting with dozens of acquaintances on my morning walk.

2. Morocco is statistically safer than home.

According to the 2015 World Economic Forum Report, Morocco ranks in the top forty safest countries in the world—placing it well above the UK and US.

3. The surfing is world-class.

From beginners like me to top professionals, everyone will find a wave their size in the coastal region around Taghazout. Go a bit before high season, which starts late October/early November, to enjoy an entire beach to yourself.

4. Tourism is a key industry, and tourists are treated well.

In addition to high cultural standards of hospitality, everyone from my riad hosts to my surf instructor seemed genuinely happy to have me. I felt warmly welcome from the start.

5. Storytelling is an art form.

One of my favorite memories from my weeks in Morocco involves sitting in a shoemaker’s tiny shop ensconced in the scent of leather and cigarette smoke, listening to his stories. No rush—only the age-old tradition of weaving words.

6. Every market is a colorful sense experience.

Men and women in colorful kaftans and djellabas, precisely stacked blocks of perfume, cones of bright, pungent spices, and glittering racks of jewellery satisfy every fantasy I’ve ever had about labyrinthine marketplaces.

7. The artistic and musical traditions are exceptionally rich.

I dare you to listen to traditional Amazigh music, peruse the artisan shops of Chefchaouen or watch a master craftsman at work and not fall in love. If I had a home, I would fill it with things from Morocco—and I never say that.

Top 5 Destinations Around the World for Homestays

A homestay can be an incredibly rewarding experience both for the homeowners and visitors. Typically, students use homestays as safe, affordable accommodations when traveling on a tight budget. But it’s also a great way to practice language skills in a comfortable environment and receive insider information on the best areas to explore in their travel destination—homestays are especially suited to solo female travelers

  1. Yuvacali, Turkey

In Turkey’s southeast region, in the village of Yuvacali, visitors receive a raw experience of what daily life is like for local Kurdish families. Traditional life means hard work for families living here, most only survive off a few dollars a day. Though struggling financially, these families offer a culturally rich experience for anyone interested in a unique holiday. A handful of families in the small village offer accommodation under the starry skies of Yuvacali in a nomadic canvas tent adorned with vibrant paintings or in a traditional, mud/brick house. Guests help out on the farm, learn to cook traditional dishes on an open hearth, and enjoy swapping stories with locals. This is no five-star hotel (in fact, it’s far from it) and families here, though extremely friendly, present an opportunity to work together, not offer hotel-like services. If you’re up for the challenge of helping out, Yuvacali has plenty to offer any curious, open-minded traveler.

  1. Tighza Valley, Morocco

Throughout Morocco, there an abundant number of opportunities to experience a homestay with a local family. One particularly magical place is within the breathtaking Tighza Valley where many Berber families open their homes to foreign visitors, offering simple, clean rooms within family owned homes. The arid valley, dusted with cacti and leafy green foliage, is within the high-reaching Atlas Mountains, far from the turbid, bustling cities of Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. This is rural Moroccan life at its finest: simple and scenic. Within the valley, most guests take to the alpine trails, hiking throughout the valley and enjoying mountainous routes filled with endless snap-worthy scenes: Berber women cultivating fields, shepherds watching after flocks of goats and sheep, and boisterous children playing imaginative games. Life definitely happens at a slow pace, which is not for everyone, but the Berber people are exceptionally welcoming and on point with keeping guests occupied and well-fed.

  1. Old Havana, Cuba

Becoming familiar with the words “casa particular” or “casa particulares” is a great advantage when traveling to Cuba for an independent holiday. The term means “private house”, and upon booking, will land you either a private home or room. The Cuban government issues special permits for renting out privately owned homes, or rooms in family homes, and they are advertised through bright blue signs out front with the words “Arrendador Divisa”, it’s a rental permit showing which casas are legal. Prices vary and depend on the travel season, area of Cuba, amenities offered, square footage, and so on. One of the best places for casas is in Old Havana, where friendly owners give a healthy measure of gossip and tips on the lay of the land. You’ll get great insider information on Old Havana’s top music clubs, festivals, and bars, and most often the owner will treat you just like family.

  1. Lisbon, Portugal

In Portugal, “Solares de Portugal” is an interesting idea introduced to bolster tourism within houses laden with charm and unique character, called “Turismo de Habitação”. The concept is aimed at preserving rich heirlooms of the country’s cultural and architectural heritage. This type of accommodation is not a guesthouse or hotel, but a genuine homestay. Accommodation comes in various forms such as rustic farmhouses, elegant estates, and grand country homes restored to their original luster for welcoming guests from around the world. Most homestays can be found in Lisbon, but others are in Porto, Faro, the southwest islands, and other small Portuguese cities and towns. The Solares exemplify hundreds of years of Portuguese culture and history (a large part of the magnificent 17th and 18th centuries manors are owned by descendents of the original owners). Taken quite seriously as a representation of their country, the Portuguese are dedicated to providing exceptional experiences to foreign visitors.

  1. Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

If you’ve ever had the desire to explore the deepest reaches of the Amazon Rainforest, a Brazilian homestay could be an idyllic experience. Easily planned in Manaus, you can book a trip and be paired up with an indigenous family. You’ll score a room in an eco-lodge or camp under the forest canopy—it’s entirely up to you. Lodges are simply constructed from locally sourced, natural building materials and designed in traditional style. Think “fancy” thatch hut with some modern conveniences and you’re not far off. Ideal for intrepid spirits, planning a trek through the lush, magical landscape is authentic, eye-opening, and lands you where wildlife is richest. Friendly indigenous guides offer a healthy dose of insight on the rain forest ecosystem and teach guests survival tips in a natural environment. You’ll also be treated to some amazing local eats and be privy to some Amazonian cooking secrets too.

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