Postcards from Morocco

November 2014

In February 2013 I spent a week at La Maison Anglaise in Taroudant on a 'Real Morocco' holiday - we had guided tours by the Moroccan staff into local life & projects, a really good introduction into a very different culture. They're now running workshop holidays that combine an activity in the evenings in addition to the Moroccan experiences and I was invited back to teach a Circle Dance week. Here are some of my impressions from my working holiday.

Pod hotel

The flight to Agadir departs at 7:00 in the morning from Gatwick so I needed a place to stay for the night before. I decided to try out the Yotel in the airport itself, a Japanese-style 'pod' hotel with rooms that (in theory) contain just what you need to sleep and wash in a very compact format.
I really liked it. From the retro-futuristic surroundings, all curves & purple, to the cosy little 'cabin' it felt like the interior of a spaceship designed in the 70's. The room was pleasantly warm, very comfy, spacious (and well-mirrored) enough to not feel claustrophobic and did turn out to have everything I needed for my overnight stay. And it was great to be in the terminal itself and not have to bother with transit busses & the like first thing in the morning. I shall stay there again.

La Maison Anglaise

After an hour long drive along the excellent road from Agadir airport we wove our way through the narrow streets of Taroudant to arrive at the guest house. Like most of the houses in the town it presented just one sturdy door to the outside on the ground floor but inside it was light, cool & airy with tiled floors & walls. My top-floor room's window opened onto a central air shaft which descended through the top three stories, providing light, ventilation and a convenient public address system when people needed to be summoned for meals or trips.

Taroudant skyline

Like most of the houses in the town there was a terrace on the roof of La Maison Anglaise where you could soak up the sun, relax in the shade or take in the skyline of Taroudant and beyond. (There was also a lower level where washing could be discreetly dried). First impressions were of incomplete breeze block building, washing lines, airing carpets and a sea of satellite dishes. The minarets of the town's mosques stood out above the roof line - their harshly amplified calls to prayer clashing five times between pre-dawn and dusk - and in the distance the peaks of the High Atlas mountains were topped with clouds.

A visit to the hamman

I'd not been to the Moroccan traditional bathhouse on my first visit - I was the only male there and as the hammans are strictly segregated I decided to not go on my own. But this time there were two of us so armed with our towels & spare pairs of knickers (as advised) we were walked round to the nearest one and delivered into the hands of the attendants. With no shared language it would be an interesting exercise in communication but with smiles & gestures it all worked out.
Inside the warm (but not particularly hot) tiled interior, stripped down to our pants, we lay on the wet floor and were soaped & scrubbed by two large men. Although fairly vigorous it was a surprisingly relaxing process, possibly because it was the first time I'd been thoroughly washed by another person since I was a child. I'd signed up for a massage too which turned out to be quite a gentle set of stretches - I suspect the masseuse had been warned to not break the tourist. At the end we were repeatedly doused in warm and (optionally) cool water before emerging clean & refreshed.

Walking the streets

It's very hard to capture the streets of Taroudant in a picture - if you manage to find a gap in the stream of mopeds, bicycles, taxis, cars, three-wheeled motorbike / cart hybrids, donkeys (both laden & drawing sturdy carts) and hordes of pedestrians you then need to make sure you're not causing offense by photographing someone without their permission.
We had rain for several of the days which cleaned & cleared the dust, dirt and fumes from the air, making the streets much more inviting. Most of the locals strode purposefully on their way but the children would cry out "Bonjour" when they spotted a foreigner, usually breaking into giggles when they got a reply (in any language).
With no road signs or street names anywhere in the town (not even in Arabic) I was quite proud of myself for finding I could reliably navigate through the warren of lanes, passages & alleyways, especially when I discovered a short cut through the centre that avoided the busier streets. A town that had felt bewilderingly alien & strange was starting to feel familiar and even, almost, comfortable. A big thing for me.

The city walls

Taroudant's walls are truly spectacular, totally encircling the town (although it's more of a square) with their crenellated tops and buttressing towers. Most of the gateways are street-wide and grandly impressive but I really like this little people-sized entrance with its shady palm just outside.
The land just outside the walls is mostly clear, either paved (around the main way in to the town) or bare earth with occasional shrubs, piles of litter and inevitably a group of young boys playing football on it.
It would be wonderful to walk around the town on top of the wall but sadly it's merely a facade, the 'towers' are just bends in the wall itself with no structure inside them. There is a small section near the main entrance to the town with a raised walkway but as you rise upwards the first thing that strikes you is the sea of satellite dishes across the skyline. A real mix of ancient & modern.

The Pigeon House

The traditional 'mud & straw' construction material is being replaced by concrete breeze blocks throughout this part of Morocco but on one of our trips we were shown around a restored old-style building, named The Pigeon House for its integrated nesting holes. The central courtyard contained, as with nearly all the houses we visited, a citrus tree and a well-developed basil plant - used as a good luck charm and an insect repellent rather than for cooking. The walls are normally whitewashed but here they were left brown with the doorways outlined in white for decoration. The house used to have a well but this has been sealed over as piped water has become available in the village.

The singing toilet

On a trip out to see a beekeeping project I was told that the previous group had 'really enjoyed singing in the toilet' which was an unexpected recommendation. However when I set off to check it out I found this magnificent checkerboard tiled room with acoustics to bring out the Phil Spector in anybody (of a certain age).

Dar al Hossoun

On the flight to Morocco several of the participants had read an article in the airline magazine about Dar al Hossoun, a small but fancy riad (house with an enclosed garden) with an exotic colection of plants from around the world. Although not quite the 'natural Morocco' that we'd come to see the pictures looked wonderful and the promise of a swimming pool was the final straw - a lunchtime visit was arranged.
Although the day was wet (and the pool a bit too cold for most) the gardens were a delight, rich & lush. Centrepiece was a large sunken garden, created in the hole left when the earth was excavated to provide building material for the mud & straw construction of the surrounding buildings. Wandering peacocks added to the sense of exotic luxury, as did the rather splendid lunch laid on for us.

Camels

One of our excursions came to a sudden halt when the driver spotted some camels in the distance and all us tourists leapt out with cameras at the ready. A lone man on a donkey was driving about twenty dromedaries across the scrubby terrain, although they were moving at a fairly sedate pace and munching at the Argan trees as they passed.
There seems to be an ambivalent attitude to camels in this part of Morocco, they're an ancient part of the culture but their right to forage & drink across the land means they can have a serious impact on people in the area who're farming within very tight margins.
Still, their presence was a reminder that the Sahara was not that far away.

Rain and floods

There hadn't been a drop of rain during my first visit to Morocco so it was a surprise to see clouds overhead and be caught in (actually rather pleasant) showers. It was more of a surprise when our trip into the Anti-Atlas Mountains was curtailed by a road being flooded out. We managed to backtrack and find another route (by stopping to ask passing locals, the signage was minimal) but it was a reminder of how effectively the mountains on either side of the Souss river channel the rainfall down, giving the valley its fertility. However this funnelling means that flash floods often accompany sudden rain and the next day's news reported that 32 people had died in floods in the area. A sobering thought.

Farming in the mountains

On our trek through the Anti-Atlas Mountains we came across several people (invariably women) ploughing, using a wooden plough drawn by a donkey. This was in preparation for sowing barley which would use the moisture in the soil from the recent rain (and hopefully any more that might fall) to germinate & grow. It looked like very hard work in the thin & rocky soil and when one of our group was given the chance to try it for herself she confirmed that it was just as hard as it looked.
In the mountain villages there was an even stronger prohibition against taking people's photographs without their consent so pictures were taken discreetly and at enough of a distance that faces could not be made out.

The steepest road in Morocco!

Well, not exactly. Some angled rock strata, a tilted camera and a carefully posed subject produced this fearsome ascent. Thanks Jill!

A visit to the souk

There are two souks (markets) in Taroudant, the Arab Souk which specialises in 'crafts' like leatherwork, silver & jewellery, clothes, shoes, etc. and the Berber Souk which covers food and day-to-day items (although the division between them isn't quite that sharp in practice). Both consist of a warren of tiny alleyways lined with (mostly) tiny shops & stalls, the whole thing covered by a very functional corrugated iron roof. Not only were they thronged with people but it seemed perfectly acceptable to ride a bicycle or moped through them, causing some alarming moments.
I'd found the souks quite daunting in the past with their insistent, 'in your face' stallholders but this time I took Angela, a friend who'd been out to Taroudant several times, as my guide & guardian. She led me through to shops that (through her, I suspect) had learned how to treat the timid Western visitor, laying out their wares and then retreating to let us take our time. As a selling method it was a great success - I ended up buying two locally made throws to bring some of the Moroccan colours back to brighten up my home. I even tried haggling over the price, although I suspect my 100 dirham saving was well within the owner's margins. But it meant that we were both happy with the outcome, which is after all what bargaining should end up with.

Calesh rides

Caleshes are horse-drawn carriages providing rides for up to four people in and around Taroudant. I'd taken a tour of the town in one on my previous visit but this time I realised that the 20 dirham fare was about £1.50 and it was a very nice way to get back to the guest house, especially as my attempts to say "La Maison Anglaise" or to pronounce the Arabic street name were met with cries of "English House!" and broad smiles.
We'd been advised to carry small change but on one occasion I found I only had a 100 dirham note to pay the fare - this resulted in a long, long wait while the drivers' mate (there always seemed to be two drivers for tourists) went up & down the street trying to break it down for change. I suspect the intention was that I'd just let them keep the change but it seemed like such a bald scam that I doggedly waited until my 80 dirhams arrived.

A shop on every corner

It seemed like most houses in the town had a lock-up room on the ground floor that would open up into a shop at the first opportunity. Most impressive were the 'greengrocers' with their piles of brightly coloured fruit & veg but there were all manner of good & services on sale. Every street seemed to feature at least one tiny butchers shop (in one the usual rack of plucked chickens & larger birds was joined by a black bull's head!), a moped & bicycle repair garage, a carpenter (usually making furniture) and a pharmacy with a very European interior, all polished wood racks and white lab coats (and excellent French).

Berber band

As one of our 'Cultural Experiences' we invited a local Berber band to play for the group one evening. This turned out to be five (later joined by a sixth) woman ensemble who drummed & sang for us - a powerfully loud experience in a tile-lined room! The music was in hypnotic 7/8, 10/8 and 12/8 rhythms and the call & response singing demanded that we get up and dance to it - encouraged by the staff who joined in both the dancing and singing themselves.
The band members took turns to dance solo, starting off with recognisable Middle Eastern steps but then doing a sort of intermittent 'bunny hop' accompanied by loud bangs on a drum. Very bizarre.

A village street

Our last excursion was to a Berber village in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The houses were mostly traditionally built but some of the more recent repairs (following flash flood damage) were being done in modern concrete breeze blocks. The blue panels on the walls contain water meters - drinking water is now piped to villages in this area and the fees go towards providing new supplies to other villages. The pathways - obviously used as storm drains - were precarious but at the top we had a splendid view of the mountains rising above the village and the Souss valley spread out below it.

Breadmaking

While in the village we had two demonstrations of breadmaking. One was in a pan over a small wood fire while the second used a clay oven fired by the husks of nuts from the ubiquitous Argan trees that covered the land in all directions. With the freshly baked loaves piled high we retired into the cool of a traditional long, thin room for a slap-up feast of vegetable tagine and the inevitable Moroccan mint tea. And who could ask for more?