Over ten years ago, on my first trip abroad – to Dakar, Senegal – I met a likeminded traveler named Sahnah. Hailing from the US and South Korea, this girl could travel on the most uncomfortable of public transport, sleep in cockroach-infested hotels, get stolen from without batting an eyelash, and clean up a friend’s banana vomit.
In other words, she was the ideal travel partner. And I took advantage. Though our lives have taken place in different corners of the globe – she in North and South America, me in Asia and Africa – we’ve connected every few years for a trip. Mauritania, Cambodia, Thailand, India.
And now, Morocco!
Part I: Backpacking in Marrakech
We met up in Marrakech, a city I’d visited five weeks earlier with my parents. Unlike most travelers, I love returning to a place– I always have a different experience and gain a new perspective.
Marrakech didn’t disappoint. With my parents, I’d visited sites like the Bahia Palace, the Saadian Tombs, and the Ben Youssef Medersa; we’d eaten at nice Moroccan restaurants; we’d watched the action on the Djemaa el Fna.
With Sahnah, well, we “did” almost nothing. We wandered around a few alleys in the north section of the medina, where Sahnah oohed, aahhed, and snapped loads of photos. We visited a souq or two, bought a thing or two. And we sat at cafés for hours, sampling Moroccan dishes and keeping ourselves warm with glasses of mint tea.
Our second full day in Marrakech illustrates our rhythm perfectly: we took a slow breakfast in the courtyard of our dar (a small riad) then emerged into our alley and headed toward the souqs and square. We passed one shop that had chameleons; Sahnah got excited and snapped photos. That led to a one-hour chat with Aziz, the shop keeper, who was the most philosophical, insightful, and silly Moroccan I’ve met yet.
By this point it was 1:30pm, and we had a lunch date with two shop-keepers Sahnah had purchased spices and perfume from the day before. We raced to the market to buy strawberries for dessert so as not to show up empty-handed.
For the next four hours, we chatted with Mohammed and Younes about everything – marriage, shop life, food and tea, medicinal herbs they sold, the different regions of Morocco and their languages, the process of purification before prayer, the king and his family, and views on women. By the time we emerged from our new friends’ shop at dusk, we’d traveled less than a single kilometer from our dar all day.
Sahnah and I are both obsessed with food – especially of the cheap street variety – but we’d been so busy wandering down alleys, talking for hours, and hanging out with shop-keepers, that we hadn’t actually tried that much food yet. That became the sole goal of our last evening. I tried a sort of pita stuffed with a potato and cheese patty, harissa spice, vache qui rit cheese spread, mashed potato, and cumin. Later, we wandered through the infamous food stalls of the Djemaa el Fna and sat ourselves down at a stall displaying an incredible variety of grilled vegetables and salads. For fifty cents a plate, we feasted on grilled aubergine, grilled pepper, tomato salad, spinach salad, beetroot salad, and grilled chicken with harissa. Not only was it delicious, but sitting on a bench in the middle of the smoke and crowds was an atmosphere just like we like it.
Part II: A Homestay in Taroudant
After three nights in Marrakech, we took a 6-place grand taxi to Taroudant, my “hometown” in Morocco. We were welcomed with open arms into the home of my Moroccan friend, Hafida (the one who taught me a lot of what I now know about Moroccan food).
Loads of visitors came to meet Hafida’s curious guests, and we became favorites among the neighborhood kids. Sometimes, we did like the women, who would lie around on the sofas and watch TV after our big, long meals. The TV, tablets, and phones were out a lot, and I was a bit shocked by this, but Sahnah confirmed that Hafida’s family’s usage was still far less than that of a typical American family.
Other times, we headed onto the street to play games with the kids, who were on school holiday. I was subjected to loads of Moroccan games and songs, and, even though I couldn’t understand the language, I was able to grasp the concepts because the games were not that dissimilar to those I grew up playing. Neighbors looked on from windows, intrigued, perhaps, that two adults would play with children.
On my first evening, I asked to take a shower, and was directed to the forth storey of the home. We’d hung out on the first and slept on the second, where I’d noticed a shower. It turned out to not yet be connected. The third storey, where the boys slept (as well as Hafida’s hundred year-old father-in-law, who had his meals brought to him in bed), was totally unfinished. On the fourth floor, which was also unfinished, was the rooftop veranda and a hammam.
I was told that the house was being finished floor by floor, as money came in. This may be common, since my other friend, Atika, had told me workers were currently finishing her family’s second floor with paint and mosaic tiles.
Anyway, in a bucket, I mixed hot water from one tap with cold water from another, then scooped the water over me and washed and scrubbed myself. It was very enjoyable, and I was looking forward to doing it again the following evening.
But when Atika, came over, I learned that they have neither a hammam nor a shower in their family home, and must go to the public hammam once a week. Nadia, Hafida’s sister, told me that she goes to her mom or sister’s home for her own once-a-week-wash. I’d thought those public hammams were for the rare villagers or poor people that didn’t have running water at home; it seemed, in fact, that the lower middle class used them, too. When Hafida talked about having done her hammam upstairs the previous Sunday with the family, I realized that bathing in Morocco is both a luxury and a rarity. I certainly didn’t want to be that white girl who needed the hammam every day, so I refrained from hammaming it again.
After two days and nights of eating and playing games and lying on sofas, it was time to go – we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. However, everyone in the family seemed so genuinely sad to see us go – showing us with gifts and heartfelt hugs – that I wished we could have stayed longer. But we had other plans.
Part III: Tenting it in Southern Morocco
In Sahnah’s backpack, she managed to fit a tent and sleeping bag so that she could camp along with Bruno, me and Totoyaya for eight nights. Bruno and I wanted to head south, so the plan was that she’d follow us as far as she could and then travel back to Marrakech by bus on her final day.
Sahnah is my first friend to come and camp with Bruno and I – and only the second person since I’ve been with Bruno. Though Bruno’s niece had the fortune to be visiting us in hot, animal-filled Kenya, Sahnah, ever easy-going, seemed quite happy just to meet Bruno and experience our lifestyle.
Of course, Morocco isn’t the best sample of our regular lifestyle because, at this time of year, campsites are chock-a-block with retirees from Europe and their massive, generic camper vans (like the one my own parents rented for three weeks for their adventure around Morocco). Bruno and I find it entirely unappealing to camp this way, but Sahnah took the retirement communities in stride.
We drove from Agadir down to Tiznit, where we shopped for fresh produce in the open-air market and ate ‘addis and khoobz at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The medina was filled with dust and cars, so after taking a hundred photos of a hundred different doors, we headed for the coast. Wedged between two motorhomes at the campsite, the three of us escaped to the beach, where we pointed out colorful rocks to one another and observed the Moroccan families out for their Sunday afternoon at the beach.
Further down the coastline, we admired rocky cliffs encircling the occasional cove or white sand beach. We picnicked on one of those cliffs – Sahnah making some amazing salad dressings – and walked some more beaches.
In Sidi Ifni, we found a campsite we liked, along the corniche of the town’s beach, so we stayed a couple nights. Above us, on the top of the cliff, perched the old Spanish city; Sahnah and I went to explore. We wandered past a ghost-town of ocean-blue paint on whitewashed colonial buildings then stumbled upon the region’s bustling weekly souq. We did yoga in the campsite, cycled to the town’s distant port, walked along the beach, and ate fish tagine. With no sights per se, it was nice to slow down and show Sahnah the flow of our daily life.
Next we headed to Fort Bou Jerif, the ruins of an old French protectorate fort in the middle of the hammada (rock desert). I’d read that the campsite here would give people a taste of the desert – and it did, just not the type of desert Sahnah had in mind. Still, we visited the fort, stumbled upon a nearby mini-oasis, and soaked up the solitude and silence.
The following morning, we headed off-road to La Plage Blanche, a 40km-long beach that was used in the time of the French Aeropostale as both a reference point and possible landing strip on the flight from Toulouse to Dakar. The three of us squeezed up front and bumped along for an entire day on the 50km piste to the beach. We could have taken the tarmac from Guelmine, I suppose, but we wanted to offer Sahnah an off-road experience.
We bush-camped high over the beach, behind giant sand dunes that gave Sahnah the taste of the desert she’d not gotten the day before. It was gorgeous, but – as is the case in the desert – totally inhospitable. It had been windy the last few days, but here it was awful. We tried parking our vehicle so as to give us a breaker, but the sand started flying under the vehicle. Bruno blocked the hole with plexi glass, cardboard boxes, and an umbrella. Sahnah and I were only able to explore the dunes and beach with clothing layered from head-to-toe, headscarves, and sunglasses. It was totally crazy, but the dunes were mesmerizing, even in a storm.
We dropped Sahnah off in Guelmine, the supposed gateway to the Western Sahara, a contested region that most maps invalidate with a dotted line between its northern border and southern Morocco. In Guelmine, 50% of people are Saharawis, and you could see their long, loose pale blue robes with gold-embroidered borders everywhere.
These same Saharawis inhabit most of Mauritania, where Sahnah and I first traveled over a decade ago. It was a fitting place, then, for us to bid her farewell.
It was awesome to reconnect with Sahnah after having not seen each other in almost 3 years (and not traveling together in four – wow, does time ever pass quickly!). I loved getting to re-explore Marrakech, and to introduce her to my Moroccan friends and their family life.
I especially loved getting to share my daily life with Sahnah – a life that is difficult for most people that are dear to me to grasp. After eight nights tenting it with us in southern Morocco, I think she gets it.
So… who’s next?