I’ve been sharing photos of my second trip to Morocco in just a year and a half via social media since my return but I feel it’s finally time that I put down in words my experiences. There is so much to say about this last trip and a culture that I find draws me back again and again, it’s almost overwhelming. I used to be one to journal everyday happenings of trips and special moments but as I’ve grown older I find that task tiresome and hum drum. I much prefer to draw back on feelings, smells, and tastes.
I spent the morning today compiling my photo and video mementos from this last trip and getting sucked into those past experiences. For the trip I of course packed my handy Mark iii, I feel naked without my big, fancy camera but when the situation was too arduous or I preferred to be more present my iphone sufficed. Like last time I traveled solo to Morocco and met up with a group of women for a yoga retreat. I’ve always been one to run towards opportunities that make me feel uncomfortable and sometimes even scare me. I want to prove to myself that I can do it. I’ve recently noticed that Olive is the same way and it makes me proud and I rest easy knowing her life will be an adventure. When I first traveled to Morocco in 2015 I remember what a complete culture shock I experienced when I first landed in Marrakesh. As soon as my driver loaded up my suitcases and we were off I was very much aware I was amongst a culture so different than my own. The weather was nice then since it was late winter and families were all out for an evening stroll. Women wearing their hijabs and families of four all packed onto mopeds and zipping through traffic. It was eye opening and invigorating. This last trip it didn’t phase me nearly as much, it was all something I’d had a taste of previously. I walked off the tarmac feeling confident and at ease, never an unwelcome feeling. Something that was different this time around though was the heat. I’m no stranger to hot weather, I’ve spent the majority of my life in sweltering Texas heat. This was something different. The heat in Marrakesh is heavy in late August, it’s aggressive and most of the time you don’t experience a break from it, air conditioning isn’t prevalent like it is here in the states. On top of that, Morocco is a Muslim nation where it’s advised you dress conservatively, no shorts on this trip. By day 4 I was used to being in a constant state of dampness (if you will) while I wrapped a scarf around my neck and learned to just exist in the heat without yearning for the next air conditioning break.
I was lucky enough to stay again at the fantastic Peacock Pavilions, a bohemian oasis on the outskirts of the desert. Peacock Pavilions is a boutique hotel tucked amongst a few acres of olive groves in a small village outside of Marrakesh called Douar Ladaam. Maryam Montague and her husband Chris are the brains and brilliance behind this slice of paradise and I probably will never be able to get enough of the home/hotel they’ve created. Every inch is perfectly curated and dripping with relics from around the world, saturated colors, intricate tile work, and luxurious gardens. On top of the beauty that is Peacock Pavilions, it’s also the birth place of Project Soar, a nonprofit organization Maryam started with Chris to benefit the young girls of Douar Ladaam. Girls in this part of the world aren’t encouraged to attend school after a certain age like their male counterparts and often times drop out of school to help their families at home, become child brides, and immediately start having babies. Project Soar lifts up the girls of this community and introduces them to the arts, language, sports, and so much more. Project Soar was recently featured on a CNN special called We Will Rise, a film highlighting an initiative called Let Girls Learn started by FLOTUS Michelle Obama to educate girls around the world. I watched it twice in one day last week and had tears of happiness streaming down my face almost the entire time. They do good work there and I’m so humbled to have learned more about it this trip back.
Something else so wonderful about Peacock Pavilions is the amazing cuisine. All meals are had either on a beautifully tiled patio overlooking the infinity edge pool or within the Arabian dinner tent that is setup different each and every night. The tablescapes are beautiful and the vegetarian fare so simple and so healthy.
I think my favorite capture of the entire trip is below. Three men who worked at Ben Youssef Madrasa (an ancient Quranic school) socializing as tourists popped in and popped out.
One of my favorite parts of being in Morocco is hearing the call to prayer fives times daily. I usually would hear it starting off in the distance and as the seconds passed it would grow in strength and intensity sweeping across the landscape and meander through alleys. When you’re in small vilages there are oftentimes only one or two mosques that would have the call to prayer, but when you’re in the medina there are dozens of mosques within ear shot and you’ll hear multiple calls competing with one another. It’s so hauntingly beautiful to hear.
On day one we all enjoyed an afternoon at a hammam within the medina. If you’re ever in Morocco just ask where the hammam is and GO. It’s a local spa most Moroccans visit on a weekly basis. There are luxurious hammams for affluent Moroccans and tourists and there are modest hammams where the locals usually tend to frequent. When you go to the hammam you’re going to get a good scrub and leave your dead skin behind. Each time I’ve had one I’ve left feeling so taken care of, refreshed, and so at peace with everything. Once we undressed and were donning matching robes we were led to a small, dark room with stone walls smelling of oranges and rose oil where we were instructed to hang up our robes. I then sat on a squishy, plastic mat and leaned my back up against an almost scalding hot wall. A woman with a kind face appeared and started splashing hot water all over my body with no warning. We didn’t speak the same language but she’d motion with her hands and with her eyes what I needed to do next. Then she began lathering and scrubbing with an exfoliating mix that smelled of oranges and maybe even lavender. I forget the sequence of events now but there’s lots of flipping over, lifting of limbs and all that while she scrubbed every inch of my body…even in between my toes. There was no judgement or bashful looks, we were all women being cleaned and pampered by other women. It was amazing. I scheduled a private massage later in the week while I had some off time at the hotel and a sweet woman gave me a lovely massage and paid no attention to the sheet that I expected would cover my body. Something that I find so hilarious in Morocco is how when you’re out in public modesty is essential, but when you’re getting a massage or are at the hammam that is all tossed aside and you’re just stark naked.
One of my favorite parts of this last trip was going on a food tour with Youssef of Marrakech Food Tours, a wonderful business he started with his American born wife Amanda. These two foodies have sought out the best food within the medina of Marrakesh and they delight their clients with local delicacies such as Tanjia, spicy olives, fried street food, local tagine, sweet mint tea (of course), and fresh smoothies. I was full after the first two stops on the tour and was so sad to only take small bites at each stop afterwards but happy to at least try each distinct flavor along the way.
Youssef and our guide brought us down winding alleyways we would never have known about and deep into bread ovens to meet the neighborhood baker. I remember emerging from the hot bakery onto the medina streets where it was still probably 100 degrees and it feeling cool. With each shop, food stall, and butcher we passed I was exposed to a multitude of smells…some good some bad. Moped exhaust would mix with the perfume from oranges and then with sewage and then with tobacco and then finally with fried fish or roasted chick peas. As we walked and turned corners kids would kick around soccer balls while cats scurried away from the butcher with fresh chicken heads for dinner. Marrakesh is wild.
Towards the end of our retreat we ventured into the high Atlas Mountains for a day at Kasbah du Toubkal in a small, remote village called Imlil. Our driver, who is a SAINT, guided us up the mountain via another Berber village. We shared the narrow path with curious kiddos, sheep, and donkeys. Being in the mountains was such a welcome break from the heat of Marrakesh, it was in the mid 60s when we arrived and there was a breeze and a sky that threatened a rain storm even. We trekked to Toubkal and were welcomed by a staff member who poured rose water into our hands as he greeted us. Our lunch spot was so beautiful and remote atop the restaurant in a semi-private pagoda that offered 360 degree views of Imlil and the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking and so peaceful. We were all a bit full from the previous day’s food tour and picked at an enormous chicken and vegetable tagine that I would have gobbled up under normal circumstances. Amidst lovely and cathartic conversations a powerful rain storm rolled in and then a hail storm followed. Our group along with two others huddled in the middle of the pagoda perched up in the mountains. We grabbed table cloths and nearby decorative textiles to wrap around ourselves to protect from the sidways rain and icy wind, it was bizarre and hysterical and a little bit scary all at the same time. A group of young Moroccan girls were amongst us and they nervously giggled and took selfies with us as we looked around with worried faces wondering how we were going to get down the mountain that was difficult to climb up…in sandals. An hour or so passed and employees from the hotel decided it was best we make a run for it at that moment before the storm got worse or a mud slide swept down the mountain. They gave us each bright red rain coats and sent two employees to guide us down the mountain…most of the time while holding our hands as a stream of mud and lord knows what else swept over the tops of our feet. When we reached the bottom of the mountain we were met with a scene of chaos and village traffic. Locals looked at us curiously, pale faced foreigners in red rain coats…we didn’t stick out at all. Remember when I mentioned our driver that day being a saint for guiding us into a remote village and up and down a mountain? He is also my personal hero for allowing me to hook my iPod up to his car’s auxiliarly cable and being totally cool with me playing Beyonce’s Lemonade as we took hairpin turns in and out of conservative villages. I reveled in the ironic amazingness as we drove through this exotic landscape, Formation blaring. On our drive back to Marrakesh I noticed a dust storm off in the distance as we passed a beautiful camel staked to the flat ground, standing strong with its nose tipped towards the sky. The camel’s tan body matching the hazy sky behind it. It is the only moment of the trip I wish I could have photographed but hadn’t. But it’s a moment I’ll try and seer into my mind and remember. It was perfect.
The last night of the retreat we were all treated to fresh henna ink by the most talented henna artist in Marrakesh. I’m a bit biased since I’ve enjoyed her talents twice now but Fatiha is a whiz with a henna needle and her artful designs are applied so effortlessly and man is she quick. I went first and presented her each foot/ankle and told her she had full creative freedom. I was so in love with my tattoos that lasted for a full week.
The next and final day of my trip was a long awaited daytrip to Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. When you travel to Morocco many locals will ask you where you’ve been on your trip and they’ll mention Essaouira, it’s a favorite amongst Moroccans, and if you haven’t been their eyes will tell you that this is a town not to be missed. Upon arrival I immediately noticed the air was cooler and the salty breeze that smelled like the ocean. I loved it immediately. The walls of the city are painted white and blue and there’s a different vibe here. Marrakesh is hot and chaotic and a total sensory overload. Essaouira is a hippie, surf town that’s laid back and tranquil. Lunch was had at Umia, a spot recommended by the brilliant Marlene and I was so happy to dine on the best grilled calamari, potatoes, and aioli I’ve ever tasted. It was all washed down with local bread and crisp Moroccan rose.
Thank you Morocco for taking care of me so graciously this second time around.