Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rock the Casbah!

"Bienvenue au Maroc!"

All Photo Credits: Shambhavi Misra

Here's what you need to know about me. I have wanted to go to North Africa since I was a fetus. Seriously. We had these world history encyclopedias in my library at home growing up, and I memorized the entire "Ancient Egypt" volume in a month. As an 8 year old. I can officially read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Getting me to learn the names of angles in Geometry was a task straight from hell for my Math teacher, but I taught myself an entire language that is not even used anymore in one hot summer month.

When I thought of North Africa and the Middle East, I imagined it as it probably was in the 1920s, when countries of that region were still under colonial rule, and were developed enough to accept and support travelers from strange lands, but still retained the traditional customs that made them so wonderful. I longed to visit them with my giant wooden trunk with old-school country stickers on them, wearing my loose-fitting khaki adventurer pants, carrying my leather-bound travel journal, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the colors and the bustle.

Unfortunately, every country I have visited since the formation of this perception of how travel should be has embraced the 21st century. There are trains and malls and freaking McDonalds' everywhere. Not that I'm complaining: whimsy aside, I could never survive without flushing toilets. My experiences, therefore, have been fun, but in a much tamer manner than I anticipated.

Morocco has been the exception.

I am from a country that shares many of Morocco's attributes: It's crowded, it has sites of historical significance liberally dotted throughout the landscape, it has many examples of medieval Islamic architecture, its colonial influences are very apparent, it's colorful, it's noisy, it's everything. So clearly, it was nothing new. Till I began to notice the differences, and make associations. Rick's Cafe, of "Casablanca" (the movie) fame, was never actually used for filming, but it's gorgeous! The medinas (old cities) and casbahs of Fes and Marrakech are preserved in time: It's like my loafers stepped from the paved streets of post-colonial Morocco into the bustle of the ancient markets. The history is palpable in the everyday and the mundane.

The architecture is a whole other facet of Morocco. At the risk of sounding like an old woman on a retirement trip with her badly-dressed elderly friends, there is color everywhere! There are mosaics and tiles and clothes and accessories that, in any other circumstance, should clash horrendously, but for some reason, on the narrow streets of a blue-walled section of the medina, they work perfectly. My eyes should have exploded from over-stimulation, but they didn't. They embraced the colors as if they had always known them, craved them.

The mannerisms were my favorite: there exists in the older cities of Morocco this intoxicating mix of the old world and contemporary French culture. The languid cafe culture that I noticed in Paris blends seamlessly with the delicious Thé Moroccain sweetened with fresh mint leaves and hookahs in the evening. Even the most crowded streets have a peace about them that I have never seen anywhere else. And once you get over having to eat some variation of Tagine and cous cous three times a day, the customs begin to grow on you!

And then we discover the simple geography of the country. At one point on the northern coast, it is possible to actually see Europe. On a clear day, without binoculars or periscopes or any of those fancy nautical instruments, you can just look out towards the ocean, and make out the Spanish coastline. Heck, if the world's borders weren't so ridiculously rigid, you could swim over and back within the hour.

Morocco is, in a word, gorgeous. In a few more, convenient, stable and steeped in history and culture. It's definitely worth a visit! Not bad for my first trip to the enigma that is Africa.

One general word of warning though: If you don't speak French or Arabic, you're pretty much screwed. Keep in mind that gestures mean different things in different countries, so while you can try and gesture "food" to your guide, he might take it as you telling him to f*ck off and walk away in a huff. A general rule of thumb before travelling is to at least memorize key phrases in the local language.