Postcards from Morocco

February 2013

Linda & I had booked a week's holiday in Taroudant (or Taroudannt, opinions differed on which was correct), a small town in Southern Morocco. The primary impulse had been to find some restorative sun & (hopefully) warmth after what had been a long, grey, wet winter but not to break the bank to do so. Some friends had been to Morocco on a trip that incorporated visits to local projects & community initiatives which sounded fascinating, so we booked up with the same organisation and on a dull February morning found ourselves flying to Agadir.

Being met at the airport is a wonderfully reassuring way to start a trip to a new country, no need to wrestle with unfamiliar ways before you've had a chance to arrive. Maybe this isn't the outlook of the true voyager but I prefer to soak up the atmosphere of a new place before I start to engage with it. Anyway, the tall & austere Said was there with a sign that approximated to our names and after collecting our fellow vacationeers and doing some money changing (no dirhans available outside Morocco!) we were loaded up in the minivan and heading inland.

An hour later we came to Taroudant, ringed with tall, crenellated walls and lined with broad walkways & wide avenues, standing proud & splendid in the scrubby open 'fields' stretching away on all sides. A pristine and majestic desert stronghold with a sense of timeless grandeur.

Inside things were a little different, in the way that night & day are. The narrow, twisting streets wove between tall buildings and were ABSOLUTELY CHOKED with every form of traffic - cars, trucks, three-wheeled things that looked like motorbikes grafted onto their trailers, horse-drawn carriages, donkeys (either pulling carts, loaded up or being ridden), mopeds of every shape, style & age, bicycles beyond counting and pedestrians squeezed into every remaining bit of free space. It wasn't as noisy as a British street - there were fewer engines and nobody was going particularly quickly - but the sense of (almost) chaotic motion all around had its own dramatic impact on the senses.

Our minivan somehow found space to enter this mêlée and wove its way through the town to a quieter area where our guesthouse was sited. We emerged to friendly greetings and after unpacking & showering tucked in to the first of our tagine dinners. We'd reached our base camp - the mysteries, delights & secrets of Morocco awaited us!

Goats in trees

What else can you say?

OK, maybe this does need some explanation. The plains (and the slopes of the mountains) around Taroudant were covered by Argan trees, a species that (almost) only grows in the Souss valley of Morocco. This tree fits a similar ecological niche to the olive - hardy, drought-tolerant and with a valuable oil harvest. As there's often little else to eat the local goats have learnt how to climb the trees to get to the higher leaves and we'd often see them bizarrely perched high up, munching away steadily.

Small herds of goats and/or sheep (they couldn't climb the trees) were everywhere in southern Morocco, always accompanied by a shepherd or two. Once outside the city walls we'd see them every couple of minutes, often just off the side of the road, from half a dozen animals to flocks of more than fifty. The shepherds were as often women as men.

Tiout market

This rural market was held inside a walled area of waste ground (actually it looked just the same as the surrounding land but with no trees) about the size of a football field. The stalls were all fruit & veg with a row of small butchers kiosks at one end and a long, low terrace of unmarked doors up the side with bicycles & mopeds stood outside. The shoppers and stallholders were almost exclusively male and mostly in traditional dress although the children & adolescents were in jeans, football shirts and hoodies. A stall near the entrance sold nothing but crisps & snacks, their metallic wrappers strangely harmonising with the bright colours of the more organic produce on sale.

Rides for the boys

Just outside the market there was a man with four mainature motorbikes who seemed to be offering rides to the local boys. One at a time they would climb on, drive (with varying degrees of speed & ability) along the length of the wall, the carefully turn around and drive back again. From the outside this looked like a serous comercial venture rather than a benevolent uncle or designated childminding adult. As you might expect there were no helmets, gloves or any form of safety equipment being used.


When I heard we were going to an oasis I immediately envisioned a clump of palm trees surrounded by sand dunes off to the horizon in all directions, maybe with a few tethered camels. The reality was quite a large cultivated area, richly green against the red-brown land that we'd driven through to get there, with a big reservoir at one end and a small town at the other. A ruined casbah (castle) sat above it on the hilltop, it's majesty somewhat compromised by one end being converted into a hotel with modern styling.
Our walk through the oasis ended at a seemingly deserted café but Said, our guide, quickly summoned up the proprietor who provided cold drinks to go with our picnic lunch. The irrigation channels that fed water through the fields also ran through the premises giving a wonderfully cool & refreshing atmosphere and a real sense of how precious this resource was in the (comparatively) arid surroundings.
Our presence quickly drew a number of cats who had obviously learned how to milk tourists as effectively as the stallholders in the souk. A pleasant shared lunch was enjoyed by all.


I'd been puzzling over why pea green and pale blue were such popular colours for the many, slightly ageing, Mercedes we'd seen on the roads before eventually the penny dropped - these were taxis rather than private cars. They provided town to town transport while Petit taxis (invariably small, white Peugeots or Citroëns) worked within the town boundaries. A driver would stop to pick up extra passengers if they were going the same way but only if they were the same gender as those already inside - although as tourists we were treated as something completely separate and were never expected to share. I would imagine that the fares were similarly adjusted for us although they were so cheap that it really made no difference.

Cliff houses

On a trip to the coast we passed these dwellings - half dug into the cliffside, half constructed outside. Originally used by fishermen they are now apparently mostly used by surfers.

Sea fishing

The long, sandy beach didn't look like a particularly good spot for fishing but this local angler seemed to be doing pretty well in filling his bucket with sizeable fish.

Outside & inside

Something that really struck me about Morocco was the contrast between private and public spaces. Indoors (or in enclosed gardens) everything was clean & carefully tended, outside it ranged from functional to dirty to rubbish tip, often just yards away from each other. Roads had margins of plastic bags & bottles stretching away on either side, litter collected in every unused space in the town and the outside of the walls seemed to be a collective dumping zone with the plastic bags often torn apart by goats looking for something edible. I assume the desiccating sun stops these dumps becoming a health hazard - few of them were particularly smelly - but it did give a rather grimy impression to the town.

The birds

This majestic (& seemingly deserted) building in the middle of town was regularly crowned with white birds (apologies - I don't know what species) who would wheel around the sky before settling back to roost on the roof.

Morning & evening

One of the big differences between Taroudant and life back home was in how people treated the ends of the day. Morning was a time of great activity, starting after the dawn call to prayer, while in the evening the town would empty with virtually nothing in the way of night life.
Both times were interesting for me as I would pull up my hoodie and no longer be such an obvious tourist - with jeans & trainers and my face hidden I could pass as a local, at least at first glance. It was also nice to wander the streets without the crowds, noise and dust of the day and to get a taste of an earlier, distant time.

Market day

Sunday was market day and the road out of the north of the town was filled with all manner of vehicles & pedestrians making their way out to the large, walled plaza for the weekly bazaar. This was a proper rural market with livestock a large part of it which made it a bit daunting for a poor, squeamish urbanite like myself. The animals didn't seem to be being mistreated but their plaintive bleating set a rather disconcerting background tone to the whole thing.
The market had its own progressive geography with the big stalls in the centre surrounded by smaller & smaller ones outside, down to kerbside sellers on the road with a few handfuls of vegetables or herbs.