I’m going to tell you a story now about doing absolutely nothing. Because, for six days and nights, somewhere in south-eastern Morocco, that’s exactly what we did. No tourism, no socializing, no travel. Nothing.
After almost two months of continuous guests – Christmas with my parents, a 14-person family reunion, a camper van adventure in the desert with mom and dad, and my friend Sahnah coming for a visit – doing nothing felt absolutely and totally amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the visits we received here in Morocco; but now, I was exhausted!
And so, parked at a campsite along the edge of a palmeraie in the dusty Moroccan town of Tata for six glorious days and nights, Bruno and I rested.
The southeast of Morocco is the perfect place to get back into the flow of slow travel – the entire vibe of the region is slow. Towns are few; scattered between are wide expanses of hammada, stark rocky mountains, and oueds (dry river beds). In the towns themselves, the few people are friendly, unhurried, and approachable, and there are no must-see sights and activities.
In other words, there was nothing to get in the way of our plans to do nothing.
There’s so much more to Bruno and my life on the road than our tourism. As I mentioned in one of my This Overlanding Life series posts, the reason we don’t get travel-burnout is because we make enough time for down time. I’m not talking about the time we make for work stuff – like cleaning the house, doing laundry, blogging, vehicle maintenance, cooking, or researching future destinations. I’m talking about the quiet moments, when Bruno and I are sat at a campsite, looking out at the view before us with a good book in our hands; when we’re having a lunchtime picnic parked along the coast before continuing on to our destination; when I’m listening to a podcast while leisurely cooking dinner; or when Bruno’s sat outside doing nothing more than listening to the birds and watching the wind rustle the leaves of palm trees.
In Tata, we did a lot of all of that, and it felt good. As our energy levels rose, we ventured into town with our bicycles to pick up fresh produce in the local market. We ate lunch at a roadside restaurant, and I sat for an hour photographing locals walking up and down the middle of the town’s main boulevard.
In some regions of the world – places where there are long lists of must-see sites and charming towns and trendy cafés – I struggle to allow myself the downtime I need to feel balanced. It’s so much easier to keep a relaxed travel pace in the desert of Morocco.
When Bruno and I arrived in Morocco and our vehicle was given a six-month stay on our customs document, we had begun discussing prolonging our three-month tourist visa. It made sense – we wanted to visit the Saint-Exupery Museum in Tarfaya, at the southern tip of Morocco proper, and we didn’t want to return to Europe’s winter too early.
Once we actually started to look into the process, however, we decided against extending our stay. Tourists are given a three-month entry at the border, and must get a visa extension at the local police department. You must provide several passport photos, proof of funds, and a letter of attestation from a Moroccan.
This letter was the sticking point for us. Many campsites are willing to provide this letter, but you must remain at their campsite for 15 days while the documents are at the local police department. We didn’t want to be stuck in one place, and the timing of this forced confinement wasn’t right, anyway. We briefly contemplated other prolongation options, like popping over to one of the Spanish enclaves on Moroccan soil, but both Ceuta and Melila are at the northern tip of the country, whereas we wanted to go south. Bruno likes uncomplicated things, and in this case the most uncomplicated thing was to leave when our three-month visa expired.
Initially, I was very disappointed by this. Here we were in Tata with over 1,000km to the ferry back to Europe, and only ten days left in our stay. I wouldn’t have time to do an off-road desert crossing, to trek in the mountains, or to visit the imperial cities of the north, all things I’d envisioned doing with my fourth month in Morocco. Worse yet, I’d have to stop doing nothing much sooner than I wanted to!
But the tides were changing in this country I’d come to love. The wind was picking up something fierce – it had been so bad along the coast that we’d come inland; and now it was so bad here that we spent two full days literally cooped up inside Totoyaya with our windows closed! The last time I’d experienced wind so strong it dictated plans had been in Luderitz, the windy city of Namibia.
Furthermore, the country was being invaded by retired camper vanners from Europe, come down to escape the winter. We’d noticed a drastic difference after our family reunion in Taroudant, and especially as of February. Suddenly, it was hard to find an empty space in a campsite built for 300 vehicles!
One of the reasons we stayed so long in Tata is that we’d managed to find a campsite that was relatively empty (meaning that our neighbor’s living room wasn’t immediately under our bedroom window). Later, on our penultimate stop in the country, we camped at a municipal campsite where we’d refused to stay on our way down in December because it had been full of camper vans. Now, though, we stayed four nights. It was just as full as a few months before; it was our standards that had changed.
From Tata, we hightailed in north to the border, stopping for a few days when a campsite was empty-ish, and continuing on when it wasn’t to our taste. On one day’s drive, we managed to catch the 4L Trophy, a car rally for young Europeans. Rallies aren’t my thing, but the daughter of one of Bruno’s childhood friends was participating in the 4L Trophy and Bruno had been following their journey for days. When the first cars passed us, we parked on the side of the road, set up chairs on the roof, and waited for Matilde’s green number 691 to pass. Boy, was she surprised to see us!
It had snowed in the High Atlas Mountains – a snow the locals had been waiting for since December. It was amazing to see white snow before us when a day or two earlier it had been sand dunes. Though it was pretty to look at, we didn’t linger too much – just long enough to catch a very brief glimpse of the Barbary macaques, an endemic and endangered monkey that lives in the mountains of the Magreb.
Before we knew it, we were in Assilah, the first Moroccan town in which we’d stopped three months before. I found it fitting that we’d finish our trip to Morocco in the same place that we’d begun it, just as my parents had done in Marrakech. I walked into the bathroom facilities and remarked that they looked a lot cleaner and more modern than I’d remembered – and that was the moment that I realized exactly how much I’d experienced and learned about Morocco since last I’d been here.
This made me feel nostalgic, even though I hadn’t yet left Morocco. There was so much I was going to miss – the incredibly hospitality of the Moroccan people; the affordability, comfort, and accessibility of accommodation (I hadn’t expected campsites here to have electricity or water, but they always did!); the delicious and complex foods; the beauty and sheer variety of landscapes; the local markets filled with amazing (and cheap!) produce; and the fascinating and exotic coastal medinas.
Bruno and I spent one final day of tourism in Assilah’s medina. We entered through an old arch gate into the medina’s square and caught a throng of children heading off to school. We picked an alley at random and allowed ourselves to get lost in the tangle of streets. The perfectly whitewashed walls were accented with sea blue and other pastels; the rounded doorways were detailed in traditional Moroccan style; and there were brightly-painted murals at regular intervals. Women, dressed in bright fabrics from head to toe, smiled shyly at us; seagulls squawked overhead; and the sweet fragrant aromas of tagine beckoned us to enjoy one final Moroccan meal along the outer wall of this ancient city.
Assilah’s medina was the perfect end to an amazing three months in Morocco.
We’re headed back to Spain next. We’ll spend time along its Mediterranean Coast, soaking up the sun and popping in and out of cities like Barcelona and Granada. I’ll get to witness flamenco dancing, eat a bunch of tapas, and practice my Spanish again. I’ll be able to dress the way I want and sit at cafés without being the only woman. I’ll be able to blend in again.
But right now, I just want to bargain in Moroccan Arabic in a local market for the veggies I’m going to use for that evening’s homemade tagine.