If you travel to experience other cultures, broaden your perspectives, have some adventure, and eat different food, Morocco will not disappoint. Our 3 week stay in October was full of a variety of experiences and here are some things that I learned... (throwing clay was not one of them--not for the lack of trying).
1. They drink alcohol…And even make their own!
I only put this as the first point because that is allll that we heard form people before our trip. I’m not sure why, but people said that Morocco was completely dry and we wouldn’t be able to drink during our 3 week visit. In fact, some people told us this as "the only thing they knew about Morocco". Thus we mentally prepared for a nice little detox trip, and were quite surprised to see wine and beer on the menu the first night we arrived. We found out that there are even some nice vineyards in Morocco. We didn't get the chance to check any out, but would like to do that on our next trip!
2. “Moroccan” mint tea is like drinking syrup.
I love mint tea and have bought “Moroccan mint tea” outside of Morocco before. I was shocked when I had my first glass (they serve it in small clear glasses and not mugs), and it was like sipping on warm mint syrup. Most people put 3 rectangles of sugar AT LEAST! A few times, I asked for no sugar, and it would still come out quite sweet because people are so used to flavor and can’t taste when they only put a little bit in.
Bonus: When pouring your tea, you should pour it as far away as possible from the glass. There are two reasons that I heard for this. The first being that it was a social signal comparing how far away you poured the tea to how much you cared about the person, and the second being that the bubbles created when pouring your tea so far away are handy for when dust gets in your glass, it only hits the bubbles and you can remove them and continue drinking your tea. I’m not sure if either one of those reasons are true or if it is just a tourist answer, but it is sure is fun (and messy) seeing how far away you can pour a cup of tea.
3. The vibrant green pottery comes from natural dyes.
A trade passed down from generation to generation, pottery making in Morocco hasn't lost its authenticity. We toured a place shared by 5 families as they all made their pottery and explained the process. There are two types of clay: "man" clay, used for making pottery and "woman" clay, used for beauty treatments. "Woman" clay is fine and somewhat easy to source-- just from the ground beneath us that day, but "man" clay is dug up from nearby palm groves and brought back to the village.
Upon retrieving the clay, they mix it with water, slap it to release any air bubbles, and then throw the cylinder of clay down on a wheel that is manually pushed by foot. Once it is spun into the desired shape, they use a string to cut it off and take it to their drying room to be dried out for 24hrs. Once it is dried, they paint it.
There are many different colors, but their signature color is a vibrant sea moss green. All that I could remember was that it was a mix of manganese and silica, but luckily Sandrine Ceurstemont got all of the details: "The signature green comes from contains a high proportion of manganese, silica, cobalt, a hint of copper, barley flour, and a particular type of rock found in local mines a few hundred kilometers away". Fascinating right? Who would ever think to mix such things. (Ceurstemont, S. 2018)
Once it is painted, they fire it in their hand-dug "kilns" or stoves. Each family has their own stove, and you can see all generations working together at one. After the glaze is set and cooled, it's ready for the shelf. Here, the vibrant green color attracts the likes of you and me.
4. Saffron comes from a beautiful purple flower that only blossoms for 1-2 weeks out of the year.
The beautiful purple flower: crocus flower gives birth to one of the most expensive spices in the world: saffron. A pound of saffron goes for anywhere between $500-$5,000. Why? It is very labor intensive, and its exclusivity creates a demand in itself. One pound of saffron takes approximately 250,000 flowers, each carefully tended for until the prime moment when the 3 stamens (saffron) must be harvested by hand. We were lucky enough to see the flowers in bloom!
5. I am capable of making my own necklace pendant. (and will someday)
It's any renaissance dream to see people working with fire and metal. Here we saw people in every level of production as they created small metal pendants of various designs. First they took a mix of clay and water and put a metal cast around it. They would then use a pendant already made and press it into the clay, hammering it down and placing another clay cask on top. Once sufficiently molded, the pendant was removed and the two clay pieces were fastened together with a hole created to meet the mold.
After the mold was created, they melted recycled metals over a fire. The melted metal is carefully poured into the mold and left until it is cooled. The pendant now has its shape but needs a bit of refining before it is ready for the consumer. We saw other gentleman as the sanded the pendants down truly perfecting them for you and me.
6. Women of Morocco may conceal their bodies from head to toe, but they seem to know more about accepting and loving their bodies.
I found it so curious that I could be wearing next to nothing on the beach, and a Moroccan woman could be covered completely from head to toe, but when we are both entirely nude in a woman's bathhouse, it is her that feels more comfortable with the entirety of her body and OTHER WOMEN'S bodies than I was. More than anything it was such an inspiring reminder of culture, and how much we can learn from different people. It definitely made me focus more on self love and body positive thinking. <3
7. Sometimes all you need to build something is a little animal dung.
Yeah, you read that correctly. We witnessed some spectacular earthen architecture in the Draa Valley of Morocco. Many of the buildings we visited were made of clay, water, straw and some animal dung and urine. The straw helps to maintain the stability of the structure minimizing shrinkage and cracking. The animal dung serves somewhat as a waterproofing glue. To maintain its integrity the exterior should be constantly maintained--every 4-5 years, by painting on the same mixture to the outside. It sounds a little bit strange, but some of the places we went to were 400-600 years old and still standing! (Baglioni, Eliana & Rovero, Luisa & Tonietti, Ugo. 2012)
8. Morocco is a great place to learn to surf.
The ideal place to learn to surf would be easily walkable with plenty of lessons available, warm, and cheap. That's just what Morocco offers! There are plenty of places to surf for people who are more experienced (and they already know this I'm sure :)), but we really enjoyed the different variety of waves and consistency of there being waves for beginners (we stayed for two weeks). The areas had sandy bottoms, and there was always tea for sale. My only complaint was the amount of trash on the beach and in the water: cheers to the backpacker who organized a beach cleanup day!
Added bonus: stay at an inclusive hostel offering yoga, surf lessons, gear rental and transport, breakfast and dinner for the ultimate surfer life ease. (We stayed at the Lunar Surfhouse)
PLUS I couldn't find any documented shark attacks in Morocco! :) just FYI
9. Fresh Pomegranate Juice is as easy to make as Orange Juice.
I've made a lot of different juices in my life, but NEVER pomegranate juice. I'm not sure why I imagined the process of juicing a pomegranate as something more difficult than peeling the pomegranate is slightly embarrassing. So when the gentleman was charging 20DH for pomegranate juice (other people sold it for 10), I thought it was more fair. I stood there watching him grab the pomegranate, excited to see how he would make fresh juice so quickly when he hadn't even peeled it yet, and he simply cut it in half and put it on a citrus juice press! What!? Just squeeze the juice out with pressure!?!? I thought for sure you would need to use an electric juicer, and thought of cleaning it made me feel for him even more... But it's simple! My mind was blown and I cannot wait to enjoy pomegranate juice like this at home.
10. Parking Prices are negotiable.
We saw that parking for the day was 4DH, and upon parking we were approached by a man in a green vest asking for 40DH. We negotiated with him but still ended up paying much more than the listed price and asked our hotel concierge about how the parking works. What he explained to us was that each parking representative pays the government money to officiate that specific street, he is then able to charge whatever he wants to as his form of income, and that only government officials are able to pay the price listed on the sign. Crazy right?
11. You should eat as many "pastillas" and "pancakes" as you can.
As a vegetarian, tajines got old very quickly. At first I loved the health value of them, but really craved something truly tasty... And that is where these two superstars came in while still allowing me to get a cultural feel! Pastillas are circular, crispy vegetable or meat filled savory pastries... a delicately crusted pie. It's a traditional dish, and vegetarian options are easy to find! A Moroccan pancake "M'semmen" is a rectangular, flat, crepe-like bread. They are very cheap and found at many street vendors (where they are actually the best). I'm awaiting the day when I can have these two delicacies again.
12. There is some grey area to who governs the western Sahara.
As we were driving through the Sahara, our guide said that there was a lot of disagreement for who the land actually belonged to. It really intirgued me so after looking into it more, I discovered this:
Who claims steak to the land changes depending on which governing body you support. The United States and France both back the support of Morocco staking claims to 2/3 of the desert and Algeria backs SADR for the remainder of it. Russia has remained neutral in the affair and has encouraged a peaceful resolution between the countries. The Polisario Front has won formal recognition for SADR from 37 states, and was extended membership in the African Union. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, essentially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world." Morocco has the support of some African governments and most of the Muslim World and Arab League. As of 2017, no other member state of the United Nations has ever officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over parts of Western Sahara. (Wikipedia. 2018)
Moroccan nomads inhabited the area we were in, and that in itself is claim to the land for many countries. It is all very interesting, but I'm just happy that it is now peaceful :).
13. A lot of work goes into making those luxurious Moroccan rugs.
Rugs have always been something that I've loved and admired, but I never understood the steep prices of even the most basic of rugs. Watching a lady as she spun one strand of wool into yarn, I quickly understood. There are two methods of making the design on the rugs, one where you weave the rug and then dye patterns onto it, and the other where the yarn is dyed (with minerals and vegetables) and patterns are woven in. This is what we got a glimpse of. There is a line of strings, and the ladies weave the pieces of yarn in and out, packing the yarn down with wood at the end of each row. It was beyond impressive how talented these ladies where. Taking on an art passed down through generations, some of them starting when they were just 8 years old.
14. Your intuition is the best guide through the souks of Marrakech.
There was one restaurant I wanted to check out (Nomad--worth it!), and so I plugged my little address in, thought we would drive in from the desert and go directly there. Apart from it being somewhat difficult to navigate Marrakech through google maps, it would have been absolutely impossible to drive up to the place--it was in the middle of the souks! We parked the car and walked there, but the labyrinth of the souks was almost too much for google. I used the map to navigate my little blue dot to the red dot until I saw signs for the "Nomad" to lead us through.
Another time, a local tried to give us directions to the best Moroccan pizza place. Was it the best? I don't know because I could never find it or google it. We did settle for a different pizza place, and it was amazing. Moral of the story: let the souks guide you. You will not be disappointed.
15. Prickly Pear oil is the next big thing.
If you haven't already heard about it, prickly pear oil is supposedly better than the infamous Moroccan Argan Oil--from the words of the Moroccans themselves! We saw ladies as the de-shelled and pressed Argan oil, but they had many other things growing in their gardens... among them: prickly pear. The lady informed me that it takes about 800kg of prickly pear to make 1 liter of prickly pear seed oil. Prickly Pear Seed Oil contains 2-3 times more Vitamin E than Argan Oil. It also has a higher amount of unsaturated fatty acids than any other oil. Understandably, it's quite pricey. I paid 50 euros for 30mL of it, but you know what, I really do love it! My skin feels smoother and clearer the day after I use it.
Game of Thrones, Gladiator, the Mummy, Captain Phillips, and the Hills Have Eyes are all filmed in Morocco!
We drove past the large production centers, but got to stand on the set of some scenes in the Game of Thrones, Gladiator, and the Hills Have Eyes. The Hills Have Eyes set was absolutely terrifying, and I am not sure how one person works there alone all of the time.
Most of the things I learned through my experience, but to enhance my memory and give you some more depth on some topics, I used the following resources listed below:
Baglioni, Eliana & Rovero, Luisa & Tonietti, Ugo. (2012). The Moroccan Drâa Valley earthen architecture: pathology and intervention criteria.
Ceurstemont, S. (2018, July 14). The Secret of Morocco's Green Pottery in the Tamegroute Oasis. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://www.journeybeyondtravel.com/blog/morocco-secret-green-pottery.html
Arabic News, Regional-Morocco, Politics (17 December 1998). "Arab League Withdraws Inaccurate Moroccan maps". Archived from the originalon 22 October 2013.
Western Sahara. (2018, October 23). Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Sahara