Yalla! : A Tale of Two Girls in Morocco
Graduation was looming. I confirmed that I would soon be going to Cambodia for the summer. My best friend confirmed that she would be in Switzerland for the summer. As our plans formed it became obvious that the time had come.
The entirety of our three-year friendship had been built upon a dream, a dream that we had nearly given up on. But now the stars had aligned and the dream could be finally realized. It was time for us to go to Morocco.
Since both of us were already going abroad we decided to spend a week in Marrakesh, where a high school teacher of mine was living and teaching at an international school. And, despite what everyone said about it being dangerous and the fact that it was boiling lava hot, it was definitely a dream come true for us.
We Went to the Market
Marrakesh is definitely a city for tourists, and nowhere reveals that more than the Jemma el-Fna marketplace. It is a huge mix of traditional Moroccan colors, sounds, and smells - all the things that tourists love. We walked past horses and snake charmers and through aisles of fruits and street food, all clamoring with customers and persistent salesmen. Someone tapped my shoulder and I turned, expecting a vendor, but instead it was a rather large baboon.
We moved further into the market to find a world of awesome and curious souvenirs. We were timid hagglers at first, but as the day went on we had vendors chasing after us, offering one-tenth of their original asking price and then inviting us for tea. Our favorite purchases were Berber wedding blankets - sequined wool blankets that would cost hundreds back home. We ate delicious pastries and pastilla, and of course tagine. Beyond the market prices were very reasonable and locals were helpful - I know this because before I gained a full understanding of currency I tried to pay the equivalent of $75.00 for two peaches and two men stopped to explain it to me after I handed them the money three times.
The main downside to the market is that it is so touristy, which resulted in really high taxi fares and catcalling. If ever in Marrakesh always ask the taxi driver to turn the meter on and if he refuses make sure to settle a price before you ride. We would typically pay 15-30 dirhams, and sometimes more at night, but many drivers in touristy areas try to gouge those unaware. As far as catcalling goes - it happened all throughout the market, but rarely outside. Even in the market we never felt unsafe, but just ignored the comments. Though it was hard to ignore someone saying, "I want to swim inside your breasts for just one night." Where someone who barely speaks English learns such a pickup line, the world may never know.
We dressed fairly modestly - mostly tunics and jeans or short sleeves and skirts - but tourists wear pretty much anything. We saw everything from burqas to bandeaus. We asked one Moroccan woman what she thought about tourists' wardrobe and she said what seems to be the general consensus about Morocco and especially Marrakesh, "We are free in Morocco."
We Rode Camels
This was the crux of our trip and even more than we could have ever imagined. We would have settled for a thirty minute ride in a circle, but why do that when you can take a three day excursion into the Sahara?
We booked our excursion through Sahara Expedition and began our journey to the desert. Though it was a slightly harrowing journey we had a great day we had a great time in the front seat with our driver, Mr. Yalla. He never introduced himself, so we called him Mr. Yalla since most of what he said was, "Yalla!" or, "Let's go!" in Arabic. On our drive we saw the Atlas Mountains, ancient Ait Benhaddou, Berber gardens, and a very large hand-woven Berber rug that I purchased in a haze of frivolity and toted around for the rest of my month-long trip. Not only did we get to see some incredible sites, but we got to travel with some incredible people - mostly other female duos from all over the world.
Finally we got to the deserts in Merzouga. We boarded our camels and set off into the desert. It looked exactly like the Windows default screensaver. The dunes were incredible. It was the largest piece of pure and untouched earth I had ever seen. Also, if I neglected to mention, I was on a camel. It was awe-inspiring.
We got to our camp for the night, which was a traditional Berber tent where we were served a Berber meal and treated to Berber music. They tried to start a dance circle. I thought it would be one of those things where if one person joined everyone would join. Well, we joined and it was not one of those things where it encouraged other people to join.
We stayed up late, hanging out in the sand, learning how to play drums, and attempting some Berber language lessons. We tried to enjoy the stars, but it was a little cloudy. Why, you ask? Because, I kid you not, it rained in the desert.
We spent the night there and the next morning went back to the city of Merzouga - you know, on camels - and then began the long trek back to Marrakesh, eating all varieties of tagine along the way.
We Empowered Women
Okay, so we didn't necessarily empower any women, but we met some women who were empowering other women in really cool ways.
First we went to Amal, which is not only one of the top restaurants on TripAdvisor, but a sustainable organization where vulnerable women are learning valuable career skills that can support them and their families. Instead of just going to eat there we went for a cooking class where we cooked tagine, of course. And it was delicious. It was an awesome way to tie culture, empowerment, and food together.
We also got the chance to work with Project SOAR, an initiative out to keep girls in villages active and going to school. While I was there 44 girls came exercise, play sports, make crafts, and learn life skills. Humorously enough, I was put in charge of teaching girls how to do sit-ups in the 105 degree desert heat. Many of them decided that they enjoyed lying in the shade and telling jokes more than doing sit-ups. And I'm not one to stop some good joke-telling.
After we were done with regular activities we got to be a part of an extra special part of Project SOAR, which was the first day of their partnership with Be Girl. Be Girl works to provide sustainable feminine hygiene products to girls in hard-to-reach areas because lack of access to these resources heavily contributes to the astronomical school dropout rates among girls in these types of locations. The day we got to be there was the first time Be Girl was being introduced to the Muslim world with hopes that this model will continue to be a mode of empowerment throughout the region.
Morocco exceeded expectation in every way and was totally worth the wait. It was easy to navigate, relatively inexpensive, totally unique, always exciting, and no, it wasn't scary at all. Well, except for the baboon.