Highlights of Morocco

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We just returned from our 2-weeks Morocco trip, and there are so many exciting stories to share! History, landscape, nature, culture, and unique culinary experience - Morocco is a smorgasbord of experiences. It is next to impossible to savor everything in such a short period.

Morocco offers glimpses of thousands of years of human civilization. It is home to not only fascinating but also diverse landscapes - coastal (Atlantic and Mediterranean ocean), mountains (Atlas and Rif), and of course, deserts (the most magnificent deserts of all - Sahara). It is a paradise for culinary enthusiasts- tastes of Mint tea, Chicken Tagine, and Orange with Cinnamon are still lingering in my palate. Morocco (along with Algeria) is the only place where one can witness the kaleidoscope of Arab and Amazigh cultures. In our short 2-week trip, we wanted to absorb as much as possible, and we made some great memories.

This story is a primer of Morocco, it’s culture and people, dos and don’ts. Morocco is more than the beautiful minarets, captivating Moorish architecture, and colorful souks. It is a magnificent land of contrast with a rich human heritage, unique cuisine, and fascinating wildlife. Blending of all these characters make Morocco such a special place!

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The land of the Amazighs:

Before the start of our trip, I was doing the customary background reading. One constant mention in any travel article on Morocco is that it is the “land of the Berbers.” Berbers are the indigenous people of Morocco, but I realized after the Morocco trip that they don’t like themselves to be called Berbers due to the inaccurate connotation. Berbers are the oldest inhabitants of northern Africa. The earliest history of Berbers is found in Meshwesh dynasty in Egypt, dated more than 3000 years back. They used to live in a vast area of North Africa known as the Maghreb- from the east in Egypt to Canary island in the west and from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to Senegal & Niger river in the south. They were called Berbers by then Romans as they were not Greek, and Romans characterized them as less civilized, i.e., barbaric. Clearly, they were not any less enlightened than the Romans, and these people do not appreciate this unfortunate stigma associated with their names. They prefer themselves to be called Amazigh - the freemen or the noblemen. After the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th Century, Amazigh people became followers of Islam. In the early days, they resisted Arab invasion. With time they ended up allying themselves with Arabs and fought together against invading forces. Today, both Morocco and Algeria have a large population of Amazighs. With thousands of years of miscegenation, a significant number of the present community is a mixed lineage of Arab-Amazigh. But they take pride in their Amazigh culture. They still speak and write the Berber language, which is very different than Arabic. In the last few years, Morocco started recognizing these ethnic groups. For example, in addition to Arabic, Berber is now the official language of Morocco for the past couple of years.

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Vast emptiness between the cities:

“A country so deeply conditioned by its miles and miles of uncitied wilderness that until one has known the wilderness one can not understand the cities” - Edith Wharton, 1920. This is still so relevant even after 100 years. We traveled quite a bit on the road. In most parts, it’s dry arid land with sights of some nomadic colonies in between. But it’s quite a bit different story in the city with densely population, narrow streets of Medina, uncharacteristic new town and several dish antennas packed on the roofs.

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A culinary paradise:

A few years back, we dined at a restaurant in Sedona, Arizona - “The taste of Marrakech.” Tacos, Gyros, Falafel, and Baba Ghanoush, were some of the prime offerings on the menu. After our visit to Morocco, we realized how we got fooled by a middle eastern restaurant masquerading as a Moroccan food joint! NO restaurant can be an authentic Moroccan diner if they do not have Couscous, Tagine, Orange with Cinnamon, and Mint tea in their menu. Mint tea is a tradition in the Maghreb region - in present days, it is synonymous with Morocco. It is a kind of green tea prepared with spearmint leaves and served in small glasses. We were offered mint tea at every hotel during checking in. In cafes, we always found people sipping mint tea. Khobz (Moroccan white bread) with olives comes free with any meal. Couscous or Tagine is the usual main course. My personal favorite is Chicken Tagine with lemons and olives. Fruits are usually taken as desert - Pomegranate, and orange. There are two kinds of restaurants - a local house and a Moroccan house. Local ones generally offer A la carte menu. Moroccan houses are more expensive (200-300 MAD/ person), where one can have a three-course sumptuous meal.

Wildlife of Morocco:

North Africa is not as exciting as sub-Saharan Africa for wildlife viewing. Camels dominate the Saharan landscape. In other parts of the country, we encountered some fascinating indigenous animals, such as Barbary macaque. A well-known old-world monkey found only in this part of the world. They are unique in the sense that males play the atypical role of raising young.

Morocco is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. Though it has no endemic species, the spectacular varieties we encountered both in the desert and in the mountains was remarkable.

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Useful terms to know before starting the Moroccan adventure:

These are a few words that will be repeated again and again by your guide-

Medina - Old part of the town, usually with narrow streets, markets, and mosques enclosed within a wall.

Kasbah - Central part of a town or citadel. Local rulers used to live in Kasbah, and it usually offers a high vantage point for attacking enemies. Often they look like mud castles.

Souk/ Bazaar - Marketplace.

Tagine - A Moroccan dish named after the earthen pot it is cooked in.

Mellah - Jewish quarter. You will find Mellah in every old city in Morocco.

Useful DO and DONT’s:

1. Unlike many Asian countries, Moroccans do not like to be photographed. Always ask for permission. Keep some change as some people might ask for a tip in exchange for posing for a shot.

2. A tip is customary for any kind of service. However, unlike the USA, where the card reader shames you with a minimum of 15% tip, people usually are happy with any sort of change.

3. Public restrooms are attended by older ladies. They always expect a tip.

4. Drones are prohibited in Morocco. If you carry one, chances are it will be confiscated at the customs and will be thrown away.

5. Be careful in the Medina. Pickpocketing is widespread in the narrow streets of Medina.

6. Stick to mineral water for drinking. Using it to splash your eye or wash your teeth is also not a bad idea.

7. Restaurant service is usually very slow. Get used to the slow pace of life here.

8. It is a cash-driven economy. Cash is more reliable than credit/ debit cards.

9. Colorful shops dominate the cityscapes of Morocco, and chances are you will end up in one of those at some point in your trip. Don’t shy away from bargaining. In our experience, 40% less price is a sweet spot to start the negotiation.

10. Do not purchase or consume drugs. Hashish and Marijuana are widely available and consumed in Morocco. We frequently found people offering us to buy Marijuana in cities like Chefchaouen. It is illegal, and penalties are very harsh.

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