Marrakech, Morocco is a work of contradiction. Wild, crazy and beautiful, this city is glorious. I love contrast and here it exists in abundance, from the moment you step out of the quiet walls of a riad and have to duck to the side to avoid being crushed by the motorcycles whizzing through narrow passageways. The textures, the colors, the sounds, the flavors… my mouth still waters when I think about the stiff bread I was served at restaurants to dip in spicy red sauces, the tangy olives, the steaming tagines heaped with lamb or vegetables sitting in strongly scented sauces.
It didn’t fully hit me that Marrakech was Africa, truly far from home until my plane landed on reddish orange clay and I walked across the dusty earth into the airport. It looked like photos of the African deserts I’d seen growing up in the pages of National Geographic, that certain shade of faraway places. It looked like adventure.
The first half hour of my time in Marrakech was the most helpless I have ever felt as a solo traveler. As anyone should when headed to a new country, I’d done some research on what to expect as far as local culture- but I was not prepared for the intensity with which this new place could overwhelm.
I chose to stay in an Airbnb tucked into the medina, the busy, walled section of the city filled with passages and people. I wanted to be in it all- but this meant that upon exiting the cab I’d taken from the airport, I was surrounded instantly by people grabbing my suitcase and offering to help me find my way for some change. I was literally less than 200 meters from the door of the place I was staying in and convinced I could find it on my own, but the map on my phone wouldn’t load and it was all I had. I kept walking, hoping people would leave me alone, but more kept approaching me. Having grown up in a city, my instinct is to ignore and keep walking when people approach you… but out of desperation I finally accepted help from someone who led me down a covered corridor he had to stoop to go under, to a blue door set so far into the ground it barely came to my chest.
The door was locked and this man called out to another one, who called out to a woman. All three pulled out cell phones and suddenly I was standing there, sweaty and full of nerves in the middle of this foreign city with three strangers speaking Arabic into cell phones trying to get me into this damn door.
I felt so grateful.
They asked for money after, which I’ve been told is some kind of scam, but they did help me, so what was the proper protocol? At any rate I’d only been able to pull the equivalent of 100 dollar bills at the airport so I could give nothing. When someone finally managed to get this door open I could only say thank you and duck inside.
I tell this story not to discourage you from traveling here but because this was my experience. It was stressful and though I was unsure of myself, I was clearly the only one outside of my comfort zone. Moments like this remind me why travel is important- because other people’s “normal” is not the same as ours, and it is important that we experience that firsthand in order to understand each other.
Inside, the riad was stunning in a beautiful mix of simplicity and intricacy.
The stone walls surrounding us silenced some of the sound of life’s hustle, though I woke up in the mornings in the pitch dark during the call to prayer, ever present, an utterly new and wild experience reminding me how far I was from home.
When I emerged from my room into the central courtyard one morning, I met two women who had taken a break from washing linens, damp sheets hanging in a room behind them, to share a plate of some greasy and delicious spiced bread. They spoke mostly Arabic and a little French. I spoke mostly English and a little French. One of them introduced herself to me as Nadia, pulling a rickety chair towards the table and pouring me a cup of sweet, bitter tea from a silver-stemmed pot. “Mange!” they encouraged me, the one word we had in common. French: eat. We did, with our fingers, pinching the hot bread and dipping it in herbed oil. The women spoke to each other in Arabic, and if they noticed me pause they’d push more bread my way with another “mange!” like the type of grandmother who always insists you’re too skinny and why don’t you have another serving? The air around us was cool and quiet, but with these women I felt like I’d been given a warm blanket.
The moment I stepped outside of that riad my senses were heightened. Here, again was the emergence of this great contrast. There was so much going on in all directions that I had to stay conscious and present, which usually makes an experience more enjoyable in any case.
In Marrakech I felt more explorer than tourist, wandering around with my eyes rimmed red from the dirt in the air, wearing long sleeves and leggings because staying covered is respectful there. My map was folded in my pocket, battered and torn around the parts I’d folded and unfolded. Desert beauty was visible everywhere, in hidden pieces of artwork or the flowers that popped up wherever I arrived, from the table at a restaurant to an empty parking lot.
If you need to step away from the motorbikes and donkeys, the shouting of shop vendors or the hollers of small children, there are a surprising amount of green places you can escape to. The word oasis comes to mind, those life-giving reprieves from desert dust. Palm trees and pink flowers decorate orange pathways and provide much-needed shade on the hottest days.
“Where are you from?’ people ask as I walk through the winding alleys of the medina. There are few boundaries, and solo I am called out to a lot. “Cowboys!” someone yells. “American Express!” I am whistled at and called to more times in an hour of wandering than in the entirety of my life as a runner in cities.
I want to take a picture of a stack of old containers in the corner of a shop, filled with different colors of dust, so I chat with the vendor and let him sell me on everything he’s got. He rubs bars of pungent wax on my skin, different kinds of perfume, and presses something against my nostrils encouraging me to breathe in. I do and sneeze- he grins, the menthol his cure-all. He talks to me about the dried herbs in battered glass jars lined up on a wooden shelf, takes a tiny shovel from every jar for me to smell. There is a vial of blue eye drops I shy away from but he insists will clear my vision, and tosses them in the bag of spices I’m buying as a gift.
I leave the shop smelling like Marrakesh.
I end up in another shop because the man in charge grabs my arm and pulls me inside, and he is so ancient and fragile-looking I avoid pulling away for fear of snapping his arm in two. He tries to sell me on platters and teapots I can’t fit into my suitcase and I tell him I have very little money, which is the truth. However, this is Marrakech and I’ve accidentally begun to haggle with this old man. I don’t want anything here, don’t need it but he takes my head-shaking as encouragement and somehow I leave the shop having spent the last of my change on a silver teapot.
I’m not usually one for collecting too many physical things while traveling with a carry-on, but pottery was one thing I did want to take home. I ended up getting into conversation with the shopkeeper above, who told me about his daughter studying abroad in France (maths, he said, and he and I bonded over a shared dislike of numbers). He showed me pictures of generations of the men in his family working on crafting these plates and bowls, explained the designs painted on each item I looked at. What a life, to live immersed in your craft like this.
As much of an adventure as it was to explore Marrakech and the medina, I found the mountains skirting the city to be restorative. Airbnb has an experience feature where you can book activities, which is how I ended up with a Moroccan guide, Mubarek, and a group of Spanish girls wandering through the Atlas Mountains. We spent the day riding camels, eating tagine made for us by locals who lived in the mountains, and just hiking around this beautiful landscape. Berber villages sat tucked into hillsides, which would appear around the corners of the trails we wound through. We eyed a mountain peak in the distance that Mubarek said was the highest peak in North Africa. Fall colors still graced the leaves of the forest… the whole thing was just magical.
I wasn’t sure how to write about Marrakech, when I began. As a solo female traveler, this was one of the places I’ve been least sure of myself, though I never felt truly unsafe. It was simultaneously the most rewarding, because it was the most different, the furthest out of my comfort zone I’ve been in a while.
You can’t call yourself a traveler, truly, if you visit only places that you understand.
To experience this world and its people you need to visit places where some things might scare you, and many will surprise you. Every day in Marrakech I was held entirely in the present, captivated alternately by my nervous need to figure out my surroundings and the absolute childlike wonder that grasped me when I came across something new.
I guess what I want to tell you is this: sometimes travel is uncomfortable. Or maybe I’m a coward more than I’d like to admit. But whether you’re occasionally fearful like me or just don’t think you need to bother pushing yourself outside that comfort zone… do it anyway.
Do it for the things you wouldn’t have learned otherwise, the people you wouldn’t have met, the sights you wouldn’t have seen. There’s no reward without risk, anyway. So pick a place that makes you kind of nervous. Pick an adventure that scares you, just a little, whether for you that’s a solo road trip through the States or a wild adventure through the Amazon.
Then go for it. You won’t regret it.