#MoroccoIsAmazing: Where getting lost is finding yourself … and what you really want

The Morrocans have a beautiful way of doing and selling things. Every product display is a work of art. It seemed like nothing was spared to make them appealing to the eyes.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” ― Pico Iyer

As I packed a small suitcase for my Morocco trip, I resolved not to shop but to have more time to enjoy without thinking of things to carry. The cabin bag is perfect for moving at airports. Easy. No waiting time at the baggage carousel. Every time I travel, this is my goal – no checked-in bag! How wonderful to get out of the plane, queue at the immigration and out to the waiting car. I wish!

How do you say “no” to all these and just enjoy the feast? I did. What I am impressed of the shopkeepers here is they can urge you to buy but they aren’t offended when you don’t. I love that kind of respect. Not all, but most.

I met the same mom and daughter team from Argentina who were traveling from Buenos Aires to Barcelona to Cairo then Marrakesh for a month. One carry-on bag each, less hassle. “We washed and re-used and made sure we carried the lightest clothes we have”, Adriana said. Imagine if they traveled in 3 countries with a lot of heavy bags? That can be a nightmare!

On my first day getting into the souk in this small alley, I was already giddy with excitement on what will I find out. I was honestly not disappointed.

I learned well that the best way to travel in Europe is light and easy. Just lugging bags in the train’s overhead bin had been tough for me. Never again. If it is winter time, nobody will even appreciate (including yourself) what you are wearing. All you need is a comfortably warm jacket and a nice neck warmer. If you have other ideas to solve this, let me know.

Going through the shops are convenient, all of them competing not just with an array of things to sell but also on how they creatively display them.

Going through the labyrinth of souks (traditional markets) in Marrakesh was both fun and mind-boggling. The way between shops are small and often, you compete with a very languidly moving crowd, a motorbike doing deliveries and even horses in intersections. Watch your back! This did not faze me, however, as I found it so amusing in most times when a tourist shrieks and shouts after a close brush with a cart pushed by a harried worker.

I was brought to a carpet shop by my guide who insisted there is no pressure for me to buy. Of course I know they wanted me to. After a lot of explaining I don’t need one, we parted ways. Handwoven carpets can sell from US$500 and up. They’re the best buys when in Morocco. You can also arrange to have them shipped.

Most shops open between 9:00-10:00 in the morning and closes at around 6:00-7:00pm except on Fridays when most of the shop owners go for worship. There are few money changers in the big souk but one can always go to the Jemaa El-Afna Square where you can find Bureau de Change and even withdraw money from the ATM machine. I found it easier to do this in the morning when people are still few. It becomes busier by mid-day and all the way to sunset.

Too many choices! Traditional herbs, tea leaves and different kinds of oils are aplenty. Check out where to buy authentic ones before you decide. Your hotel staff can always help advise where to go.

Marrakesh is not a place for people in a hurry. It is best enjoyed slowly, taking time to look at every incredible doorway, a line of ceramic pots in a riot of colors, a rhapsody of tea leaves and oils. Morroco, in general, is best planned like you have all the time in the world to soak even in every small detail of life. Its history is rich and reading about it before you arrive adds to the excitement. It is like meeting a friend after a long time.

A friendly grandma showed us how they prepare and extract oils from the nuts. A painstaking process that Moroccans are happy to do making their oils, especially the argan oil, among the most-sought after.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to show.” – Anonymous

Exploring Marrakesh: Awesome airport, nice weather, fun flea markets and souks

If you want to soak in vibrant colors and hues, go to Marrakesh. Every plate, wall, sign – even horse carts – are magnet to the eyes.

Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac

Marrakesh (or Marrakech), a former imperial city in western Morocco, is a major economic center and home to mosques, palaces and gardens. The medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with mazelike alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery and jewelry. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque. It is also the 4th largest city of Morocco after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. *

As Royal Air Maroch taxied in the runway from Casablanca to Marrakesh, this scene bid us goodbye. Doesn’t this looked like a copy of a scene in Casablanca, the movie?

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Flying from Juba, South Sudan to Cairo, Egypt, I arrived in the morning in Casablanca, Morocco and has to wait for 5 more hours for my domestic flight to Marrakech. It was almost a 2-day flight but was made easier with the smooth flights via Egypt Air. The only ruffle was the long wait for the car to take us to our transit hotel in Cairo and the much longer wait for our passports at the Egypt Air office. Otherwise, the trip was hassle-free.

Photography book The Art of the New Airport has named Marrakesh Airport as one of the most beautiful in the world. Indeed, it is.

I was in awe of the Menara Airport. It is one of the most beautiful that I have landed into. It is said to have a capacity of accommodating 19 aircrafts and over four million passengers in a year. The immigration process was fast and in no time, I was out waiting for my taxi driver. I requested from the hotel and the cost was 200 Dirhams (USD20).

This profusion of lights greet the passengers warmly upon arrival and look even more fascinating at night.

Hotel Racine located in Gueliz did not disappoint. The room was spacious and clean with a small verandah that gave me a view of the sunset and the daily lives of the people. Breakfast was a wonderful treat – usually with fresh juices, an array of bread and fruits. There were choices of coffee and tea. The Moroccan tea is not to be missed! I agreed with one tourist who said she is a latte-person but in Morocco, she fell in love with their tea.

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Hotel Racine’s location was very strategic. It is also walking distance to many landmarks, shopping areas and event the Catholic Church.

The hotel lobby. It is fully booked most of the time so I got lucky to have reserved early. Staff are friendly and would patiently explain the direction where you want to go.

People, from hotel staff to drivers, would often laugh every time I ask if it is safe for me to walk alone. Indeed, I have never felt threatened while exploring on my own, even with or without a crowd. The Moroccan traders are among the friendliest! In some countries in Asia, shop owners will scold you taking pictures without buying anything. It is free advertising!

All things nice and beautiful – find them in Marrakesh’s souks (shops) – where every item draws the eyes. It was relaxing!

I learned one needs to bring a light coat or a jacket all the time when traveling on March. The mornings can be warm but the afternoons can be chilly. Depending on where you come from and your tolerance to cold weather, it is best to be prepared. I am glad I brought my thermal shirt with me, it was nicer to layer on top of it. You get the best of both on March and I was happy I came at the best of times.

I almost got tempted bring these plates home. It was too hard to refuse. I am glad my resolve did not break down. Next time, plates (when I have learned to cook)!

Few shops accept US dollars but currency exchange shops are in every corner. Even hotels would prefer the Moroccan Dirhams when you are settling your bill, or pay in credit card. It is also smart to have smaller bills. Taxi rides would often range from MAD 30-50 around the city. Most drivers’ shift ends at 7:00pm but they would gladly refer you to the next if you feel comfortable of the service. I prefer taxis recommended by the hotel but in some instances I just flagged on the road and agreed on the fare before I got in.

Carpet overload! Remember your flying carpet story? I got reminded. If you are into expensive handwoven carpets with amazing intricate Berber designs, they’re waiting for you.

If you are around on a Sunday, never ever miss the choir from the Church of Holy Martyrs at its 10:00am mass. They were amazing you would think you attended a concert with a variety of African instruments being played, including the drums, of course. A lot of tourists and visitors have been raving about this choir. The mass is in French but there are translated guides in a variety of languages from English, German, Italian, etc. I met few Filipinos on my way out of the church.

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The Church of the Holy Martyrs in Rue de Imam Ali in Gueliz. Conveniently a walking distance from the hotel. The church was said to have been built in 1928.

The beautiful mosque in Rue de Imam Ali facing the Catholic church.

They said the mosque and the church facing each other is a testament how the city and the country values diversity and respect of the people’s beliefs, traditions and faith. Morocco is said to have over 50,000 Catholics out of its 36 million population which is 99 percent Muslims.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter. It remains the main square of Marrakesh, used by locals and tourists. It is also known as the big square and fills up in the afternoon with people. This is said to be one of the busiest in Africa.

Next blog: Getting lost in the labyrinth of the souks!

*From Google and Wikipedia