The Third Month of Remote Year: Morocco
The general vibe of my RY4 crew was excitement when it came to this month’s country. Nervousness? Of course. Uncertainty and apprehension? Sure. But generally speaking, we were eager to experience a country and culture so different from our comfy, cushy lives in Spain and Portugal. To many, myself included, it finally felt like we were really traveling.
Our living situation was changed up from last month, our co-working space at 7AY was super awesome, and the city was quite a bit less walkable than our last two months. Moving from 2 dorm buildings in Portugal to spread out apartments in Morocco was a welcomed, albeit interesting, change. Our co-working space was best reachable by an Uber-like service named Careem that dominates chauffeured car rides in the Arab nation. The Moroccan capital of Rabat is far less walkable than Lisbon or Valencia, and that’s mainly because things are so far apart. Which means my daily 6 mile walks for the last 2 months have been knocked down to maybe 1.5 miles a day. Also, it wasn’t advisable to drink the tap water, so going through a couple large bottles of water every day was the new normal.
I also took a couple side trips to Fes, Marrakech and the Sahara. I felt like I got a good sampling of Moroccan culture ranging from the super traditional and conservative to the more relaxed and touristy ends of the spectrum. This upcoming weekend will take me to Casablanca before our group flies out to our next home: Sofia, Bulgaria.
There have been many, many articles written about Muslims and the Arab world. There was an excellent piece about Arabs shared within our group from the NYT called Fractured Lands. It’s long, but a must read. More than the fair share of articles on the web are about how “scary” this world is, how “dangerous”, and how “primitive” and “unsafe” it is to travel in any of these Muslim countries. It’s quite often said that women shouldn’t travel alone here, especially those who don’t have a “male companion” with them. I throw all those words into quotations because those are literal things that have been said to me. I won’t add anymore of that to the conversation.
Instead, what I do want to add is the story of a local Moroccan that I had the absolute honor of having a conversation with this month. This is the type of person you should think of when you hear the words “Muslim” or “Arab nation”.
I met a man named Hasan in Fes while there for a weekend trip. Some ladies from RY and I happened into a 4 story building that sold a bit of everything you’d ever want to find. It was located just outside the Jewish Quarter and sold goods to support the divorced women of Morocco. After quite a bit of exploring, we came back to this shop and decided to have a look around. A “look around” turned into 2.5 hours of browsing, tea drinking, conversations, laughs, photos and ultimately, MAD money being spent (fellow Moroccan travelers will find that punny).
Instead of shopping for those 2.5 hours, I ended up having a conversation with Hasan. He’s a local artisan who specializes in making carpet designs. After completing a design, he’ll hand off his rough sketches to women who weave those designs, following the instructions that he provides. These instructions include the design, material to be used and the colors for the various patterns. These carpets, depending on size, then take at least 2 months to complete, sometimes up to 6 months. And what’s killer is that these women weave these patterns from memory.
Before being a carpet designer, Hasan was a nomad in the Sahara. A literal nomad. In the literal Sahara. He moved around with his family’s tribe until he was 20, finding pockets of water and food sources. As was custom in nomad tribes, though I’m not sure if it still is, Hasan’s parents put together an arranged marriage with a woman from a Berber tribe. He met her for the first time on the morning of their wedding. After the ceremony, he and his wife moved to Fes so he could go to school. Hasan’s father’s family had a presence in the city, so he began working as the carpet designer he still is today. When we spoke about family and our backgrounds, Hasan let me know that he lives with his wife and 4 kids in a house not far from where we were. Two boys and two girls—just like my family. Then he casually drops that he also lives with his brothers, sisters and parents as well. On top of that, he mentions his brother’s nieces and nephews who live with them too. When asked just how many people live in this one 3 story house, he tells me there’s about 30 people there. They all work, take care of one another and fill in the gaps when those gaps need filling.
We continue to talk about ourselves, what our home countries are like, and of course, American election politics. He asks what I think about Trump and Hillary, then he smiles broadly and high 5’s me when I tell him absolutely no to Trump. He talks about how Trump isn’t welcome in Morocco because of what he’s said about Muslims, but Hillary is absolutely loved here. And that it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman who’s running for President, saying that “she can do the same thing a man can do.”
When our conversation finished, I ended up buying one of Hasan’s carpet designs. It’s a beautiful saffron yellow, cactus silk rectangular carpet with blue and brown patterns that symbolize stages of his life and the lives of nomads in the Sahara. A pyramid made up of triangles symbolizes the ups and downs of daily life; three diagonal lines represent an oasis and the happiness of finding water; X formations made up of 4 smaller X’s on each stem are supposed to communicate the 4 types of Moroccans who make up one country; S’s drawn horizontally represent children; and perhaps my favorite, a diagonal line with 4 triangles along one side of it are the symbol of his family and something passed down for generations. His wife has it tattooed on her skin from her bottom lip down to her chin. The different colors are supposed to represent the colors from different times of the day seen as he trekked through the Sahara. Hasan’s carpet could easily go for several hundred bucks back in America, but I scored it for 400 Dirham (about $40 USD). No negotiating, no back and forth, just a flat out acceptance of his suggested price. After we shook hands in agreement, his young daughter and nephew who were working in the shop gave me the biggest hugs and sets of kisses any little kids have ever given me.
In that one moment, 3 generations of humans from 2 very different countries, from 2 very different spiritual belief systems, and from 3 very different lives were so happy with one another. That was exactly the type of experience with locals I had been hoping for during this trip.
Now that the month of August is coming to a close, and I’ve had time to reflect on this month in Morocco, I have to say that I am so happy this country was on the itinerary. About 98% of the people here are friendly, warm, generous and kind. Kids love playing ding dong ditch in my apartment building and giving hello high 5s in the mornings; regularly used cab drivers are chatty and ready to help with any slightly difficult thing you might need; community car watchers in reflective yellow vests on every block make a conscious effort to ensure you get home safe at night and look out for their fellow neighbors.
Morocco is a country as complex and beautiful and challenging as any other in the world, and it deserves to be thoroughly explored with an open mind. After almost 90 days on the road, and another 275ish left to go, Morocco has pushed me outside my cushy comfort zone in the most consistent of ways. Every day, with every encounter, during every conversation. An article I read just this morning from The Atlantic, sums up this experience beautifully,
“But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less…Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I ‘took for granted,’ I now rethought taking at all.”
This is exactly what I signed up for.