The Sweet Sounds of Southern Morocco
by Nancy Hellmrich
“Swees?! Swees?! Churman? Ingleesh?” queried the effervescent young man who ran along side us as we walked into the chaos of Marrakech’s night market. Fresh faced and eager to please, he was trying to guess which of the many nationalities present that night belonged to us. My husband Marcus and I, still a bit groggy from our flight, had been determined not to miss a minute of the action in Southern Morocco. So, after the requisite cups of tea served beside the pool in the lush central courtyard of our riad, we had ventured out into the warm autumn evening armed with directions to the city square and a thirst for adventure.
“We made our way into the teeming square and became blissfully lost...”
The medina, the oldest portion of Marrakech, is set apart from the newer sections of the city by a high wall. Inside the wall, narrow streets are paved with cobblestones that have been worn smooth with the passage of time. Unsure if we were headed in the right direction but too sleep deprived to care, we joined a current of people, motorbikes, donkey carts, taxis, cars, and bicycles heading north. Before long, we rounded a corner and came upon Jemaa el Fna, home to Marrakech’s storied night market.
In the center of the square, thick clouds of steam rose into the dark sky, backlit by bright lights hanging from iron-framed carts. Each cart was piled high with richly colored spices, mounds of fresh oranges, steaming escargot, or meaty kebabs. On the perimeter, teenagers launched twirling sparklers high overhead. A group of acrobats broke into spontaneous performances. A wrinkled old man sat cross-legged on the ground, charming a cadre of cobras. And a sweet but persistent henna lady worked the crowd, asking to paint “just a little” on your hand. We made our way into the teeming square and became blissfully lost in the swirl of warm, spicy aromas, earthy colors, and the cacophony of sounds.
Despite the size of the crowd, people from all over the world seemed to mix and blend without judgment or incident. Europeans were clad in jeans and leather jackets. Britons sported khakis and collared shirts. Some locals were dressed like Europeans, while others wore head scarves or full-length djellabas. The curious young man who ran beside us wore a wide smile that begged us to give in to his queries. “He is from New Zealand, “ I said, gesturing to Marcus, “...and I am from the United States,” referring to myself. For a moment, we thought the man might never have heard of the tiny country of New Zealand. But he grinned, pointed to Marcus, and said, “New Zealand? Cheers, bro!” in a perfect Kiwi accent. Then he pointed to me and said, “United States? ... That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” And all three of us burst into laughter.
“The souks are a labyrinth of narrow, bamboo-covered alleyways with little shops...”
The next day, we returned to the medina and ventured into the souks. The souks are a labyrinth of narrow, bamboo-covered alleyways with little shops that sell everything from locally grown dates to belly dancing attire. We marveled at hand-embroidered djellabas and soft leather slippers they call babouches. Reveled in a sea of colorful scarves blowing in the soft breeze. And honed our bargaining skills on the handmade silver earrings and colorful beaded necklaces for which Morocco is known.
When our shopping was finished, we accepted the help of a young boy named Abdul who led the way through the maze of shops and back to the city square. Sitting in an outdoor terrace café as the sun began to set, we were privy to not one, but two, slightly out-of-sync calls to prayer from the square’s competing mosques. That night, after we had dined with chic locals and foreign nationals in the upscale Hivernage neighborhood, a taxi driver named Hassan took us for an impromptu tour of action-packed nightclubs such as Le Comptoir and Theatro. We were tempted to jump out and join in the fun but our agent had scheduled an early start for us the next morning. So we bid Hassan adieu and tucked in for the night with visions of belly dancers swirling in our heads.
“On the fourth day the pavement came to an end, but Hicham confidently drove on...”
For the next three days we drove a leisurely route over the Atlas Mountains toward the Sahara Desert. Along the way we stayed in three kasbahs and maisons d’hote (hotels or guest houses). Our favorite was Bab el Oued, an oasis-like eco-resort set in the lush palm groves near the entrance to The Valley of Draa. One of the highlights of the drive was the city of Ouarzazate, home to the film studio where Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were produced. Here, we toured a magnificent artisanal and purchased two Berber rugs made in the Telouet region of the High Atlas mountains.
On the fourth day the pavement came to an end, but Hicham confidently drove on into the cracked earth of the Sahara Desert. After about 30 minutes, we were met by a formidable pick-up with a large container of fresh water in the back and “desertcampmorocco” written along the side. The driver, dressed in a blue djellaba and turban typical of the desert’s nomadic tribes, was our host, Mohammad Boulfriere ... also known as Bobo. Still with no road in sight, Bobo led the way from there. Gradually, the cracked earth gave way to soft, undulating, taupe-colored dunes ... and the large, white tents that made up our luxury camp.
Upon arrival, Bobo and his staff greeted us warmly and gave us a tour. The large tents were arranged in a circle around an open fire circle, and connected by a pathway of thick rugs that were illuminated at night by the glow from traditional Moroccan lanterns. Each guest tent was carpeted with soft Berber rugs and furnished like a suite at a grand hotel. There were king-sized beds with fine cotton linens and fluffy duvets. Ceilings draped in rich red and cream colored silk. Overstuffed chairs with lamps and solar-powered outlets. Each guest tent had a smaller, connecting tent that served as a washroom, with silver amenities and plush towels.
While the chef prepared dinner, Bobo made cocktails and shared insights into the nomadic culture. Then we adjourned to the dining tent, which had been set with fine china and crisp, white tablecloths. Here, we were served a multicourse meal, featuring spicy-sweet Moroccan tagines paired with French wine. The next day, we awoke early to catch the sunrise, then got in some sand-skiing before we mounted a couple of good-natured camels for a hypnotic ride into the dunes.
After dark, Bobo and his staff sang desert songs and played African drums beside the fire. Then we all ogled the stars until it was time to drift off to bed. Our guidebooks had warned us that the quiet of the desert can be disconcerting for those who are used to the hustle and bustle of modern city life. But, to us, the silence of the Sahara was a dream come true.
ENSEMBLE TRAVEL GROUP is an international consortium of travel agencies. This article was written for the organization’s Ensemble Lifestyles magazine.