5 lessons from Morocco

A two-week trip to Morocco expanded horizons  for our writer. Here's what he learned.

By Doug O’Neill

5 lessons from Morocco
©iStockphoto.com/jontychampelovier
How quickly I learned to heed the muezzin's call to prayer in Morocco, to avoid sleeping downwind from a camel in the Sahara Desert, to embrace the madness of the Medina of Marrakech and to accept that you can't buy fresh underwear in Casablanca on a holy day. A two-week trip to Morocco expanded my horizons in surprising ways. These are the lessons I quickly learned during my first time travelling in the Muslim world.

Travel lightly, but pack a carry-on.
I want to say my knickers were in a knot. The truth is, they were in dangerously short supply. Upon arriving at Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, I discovered my luggage had gone AWOL, leaving me one day to replace all of my gear – including undergarments – before heading on a trek the next morning through the Western Sahara on a camel. Shopping for undies in Casablanca wasn't my idea of a good time. I had planned to walk the oceanfront neighbourhood The Corniche, meander through the markets of Quartier Habous or take in the palm-tree-lined promenade of Parc de la Ligue Arabe.

Instead, my first morning in Morocco found me, with my limited Arabic vocabulary, in various family-run shops gesticulating at my midsection in true moronic fashion. At one point I even found myself tugging my waistband in vain to communicate my plight, which sent one matronly veiled woman and her teenage son into stitches of laughter.

Embarrassed, I gave up and made a beeline for the nearest café for a midday glass of traditional Moroccan mint tea. After a restorative cup of heaven, I returned to the shops only to be greeted with closed blinds, empty sidewalks and the word "fermé" in shop windows. Of course! It was Friday, the Muslim holy day. Note to self: Pack underwear in your carry-on.

Stand in your stocking feet in a mosque and you'll feel truly humbled.
Something transformative happens to me whenever I remove my shoes in a stranger's home. I feel an intrinsic sense of welcome, of belonging. I wasn't expecting that when I stepped into the imposing Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which cost a reported $500 million to construct.

The holy place (the third-largest mosque in the world) sits on a rocky outcrop stretching into the North Atlantic, which is visible through the incredibly thick glass floor that can seat 25,000 worshippers. The mosque boasts the world's largest minaret, towering at 210 metres. Marble arches, intricately designed columns, fountains, large communal baths and fields of thick red carpets bestow a hallowed feeling.

But it was the vision of those at prayer that swept me away. I stood there in shoeless humility, trying to quiet the butterflies in my stomach. I, a non-Muslim, had been granted entry into someone else's sacred place, and I was thankful for it.

Learn how to sleep under the desert skies.
The Erg Chebbi dunes near Merzouga in the Western Sahara are among the most breathtaking sights of Morocco. These dunes are straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, some of them stretching 300 metres upward, and they're orange – at least they are at sunset, when most people want to view them. But I also wanted to experience them at night, and alone.

Camel trekking isn't easy on the butt. No amount of shifting in my blanketed seat provided any sustained comfort, though an improvised cross-legged yogic position helped me a little. The key is to lose yourself in the silence; its spell is broken only by the occasional "hut, hut, hut” of the bedouin guides urging our stubborn dromedaries onward in the 45°C heat.

The rhythmic gait of the beasts, combined with the searing midday sun, lulls the rider into a heat-induced calm amid the vast, open emptiness of the desert. Save for the spitting of the camels, it's a moving meditation above the sand. After a half-day of plodding, we arrived at a bedouin camp as dusk began to fall.

Even before our chicken tagine – a dish one can expect to eat twice-daily while visiting Morocco – was heated over the fire pit, I'd already dragged my sleeping bag out of the tent and up to a dune beyond our camp to wait for sleep. What arrived first was a whiff of the smelliest camel ever to pass wind. Lesson: Don't sleep downwind from a herd of camels.

Ten minutes later, I had repositioned myself on top of another dune, even farther away from the encampment, and looked up into the stars. I was one tiny speck on the planet. Yet I did not feel alone. Perhaps Allah, in his infinite kindness, knew the foolhardy traveller needed watching over. The peace of sleep came quickly.

Prepare yourself for the madness of the medina.
Prime real estate in Marrakech means a seat at a sidewalk café in Jemaa el-Fna Square at the centre of the Medina, the old walled part of the city. There, you can sit and watch the beloved madness unfold.

It's the hustle and bustle captured in travel brochures: carpet merchants, food carts, pyramids of brilliantly coloured spices, snake charmers, Berber and Arabic storytellers, alleyways jammed with locals and tourists, donkeys laden with brass wares, and clouds of mouthwatering grilled meat. It's where you can haggle over the price of an inlaid cedar box, or fend off aggressive henna painters. Or you can splurge on a bowl of snails cooked in saffron broth, or be tempted by a mountain of lamb couscous, drizzled with pungent harissa, that costs just a few dirhams, then wash it all down with a glass of the freshest orange juice in the world. This is one place where you can eat the street food.

And just when you think the madness is going to explode, there's a call, and a hush descends. And then you hear it again. To my surprise, even this wayward Catholic-raised lad from Canada was not immune to the muezzin's call. From loudspeakers at the tops of the city's minarets comes the Islamic call to prayer, chanted five times daily (dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night) by the muezzin, the Muslim crier.

Buyers stop midtransaction. Some of the shopkeepers close their doors. Prayer mats appear. Carpet sellers disappear to the backs of their stalls to conduct their spiritual ritual in private. Folks like me? We stand quietly in the passageways, trying to avert our eyes from those at prayer. It's hard not to be swept up in the holy intermission. The muezzin's call to prayer draws everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – into one collective fold.

Be on guard: A misplaced letter  or two can make a really big difference.
An unfortunate mix of jet lag and stress over lost luggage had left me more than a little disoriented. That, combined with my infrequent use of the French language (Morocco was once a French protectorate), made for another learning moment. I had befriended a taxi driver on Boulevard de la Corniche in Casablanca and announced to him: "Je voudrais faire la connaissance de Hamas, s'il vous plait.” Moroccan taxi drivers aren't known for being demure, but still, nothing prepared me for the reaction of my new friend, Ahmed, as he almost drove off the road. "Vous cherchez quoi, monsieur?"

Perhaps my ears hadn't popped after the long-haul plane ride, or my French was a little more rusty than I would have liked to admit. So, ever so slowly, fighting my mental fatigue, I enunciated every syllable: "Hamas. I. Want. To. Go. To. The. Hamas." Ahmed booted me out of his taxi. Seconds later, I stood on the curb, shocked, watching the rear of his battered car speed off into the dust.

Only then did it dawn on me: Instead of explaining that I wanted to partake of the Moroccan bathing ritual in a traditional hammam, I had inadvertently expressed a keen desire to acquaint myself with a terrorist organization. I eventually made my way to the famed Hammam Ziani, where all the scrubbing, steaming and skin peeling couldn't wipe away my embarrassment. Lesson learned.

Trip tips

Getting there: Air Canada flies to Morocco and lands in Casablanca.
Things to do: Escorted camel treks and other excursions in Morocco are offered by G Adventures, Adventure Center and Intrepid Travel.

We've got tips for all your travel needs, including what to pack and how to stay healthy on a trip.
                                             
This story was originally titled "Lessons of Morocco" in the September 2013 issue.
           
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