Morocco is a land known for its exotic appeal and incredibly varied cities like Tangier, Rabat, and Fes. While beautiful, chaotic Marrakesh is a must-visit city for anyone going to Morocco, the best taste of the culture is found in her rural cities. One of the special treats of getting away from the typical tourist path is finding places that haven’t adapted their culture to an onslaught of foreign visitors. You get to see an image of daily life as it really is.
In 2012, we had the privilege of living on an oasis outside the mid-sized city of Guelmim, known as the “Gateway to the Sahara.” While I had been enjoying our Moroccan experience up to that point, living in this area cemented my love for the country.
There is something to be said for being awoken by the neighbor’s donkey braying as a local sheep or goat herder passes the compound’s mud brick walls. Bird song from the date palm trees accompanies the donkey and the brief tinkling of an occasional bell. Soon the call to prayer will join the orchestra.
Moroccans tend to be a very laid-back people, but you don’t get to see that as much in the larger cities. All the hustle and bustle, the eagerness to sell in the markets in the medina, etc., creates an impression of rush that is not natural to the culture.
Our first morning in Guelmim was spent at a restaurant enjoying an incredibly leisurely breakfast composed of argan oil and flat breads, olives, and a plate of spicy eggs while sipping a delightfully hot and sweet mint tea.
I found myself hypnotized by the ritual of “pulling” the tea back and forth between the pot and the glass until the level of sweetness was perfect, and the tea had been properly aerated. As you stretch your arm and watch the greenish liquid pour into the small glass, you find yourself tempted to see just how high you can pull the stream without spilling it. Tendrils of steam rise from the glass, carrying the delightful minty aroma into your nostrils.
In rural Morocco, rush is something that is just alien. Unless you’re a taxi driver. People sit at the cafes for hours visiting and sipping tea. When a friend is spotted across the street, they will cross the road to greet them properly. One does not simply wave in recognition here. Hands are gripped, friends are hugged and given a kiss or three. Family members are enquired after with plenty of “Allah willing” and “Thanks be to Allah” tossed in.
One of my favorite parts about living in such a small town was my regular visits to the market for groceries. In the rural areas, a “supermarket” is nothing like we would imagine it in the US or Europe. These stores primarily sell sundries, household items like soap, some dairy products, and sodas and snacks.
My normal routine for the week’s shopping was to walk for about 7-8 minutes to the main road where I waited to flag down either a shared taxi or a mini bus. None of them had a specific schedule, and you had to rely on a bit of luck with the taxis since they are usually full when heading in this direction. Occasionally, an individual will pull over and offer you a ride. I would first go to supermarket to pick up pasta, canned items, etc. Then it was time to go butcher to pick up some camel, goat, sheep, or beef before heading over to my preferred fruit vendor. Next, I would pop into the poulterer to get my chicken ordered. As they’re still alive, it takes a few moments while they . . .prepare it for sale.
While that unpleasantness was occurring, I would head into the vegetable market to pick up our veggies from our wizened, mostly toothless vendor. He would always insist on us accepting some free fruit as well. Then I would pick up some herbs and olives from that particular vendor. Once I had my chicken in hand, I would stop by our bread seller. He didn’t speak English or French, so we used a bit of sign language to communicate. He delighted in teaching me a few words of Arabic each time. He was our guy, and the vendors knew it. When they saw us coming, they wouldn’t even bother trying to sell to us. One time our man wasn’t at his cart. When another seller saw us coming, he ran and got our vendor.
Some days my young son (who was 11 at the time) would accompany me. Whenever he didn’t, he would always be asked after. When we were on the standing-room-only mini buses, old women would pull him down onto their lap so he could sit down during the journey. Occasionally, someone would dig a small toy or candy out of their purse or pocket for him.
These are the experiences that leave an indelible imprint on your memories. When I look back on our 3 months in Morocco, and when I contemplate returning, the towns like Guelmim and Tighmert are the ones that I instantly recall.
They are the ones I pine for.
Rural life just gives you such a different glimpse of a country’s culture. Whenever we travel somewhere, I try to work in a combination of urban and rural trips so that I can experience both sides of the culture, but I will say that I typically find the rural life to be a much better sampling.
Small towns are worth the extra effort.
About the Author:
Talon Windwalker is a single parent, author, writer, former hospice chaplain, Zen monk, ultra runner, snowshoer, endurance cyclist, certified endurance running coach, scuba instructor, photographer, and lover of travelling, languages, and cultures. He has been traveling the world full time with his young son since 2011 and blogs about their adventures at 1Dad1Kid.com.