Mention that you’re going to Morocco to anyone and it seems their eyes get wide and a look of wonder comes over their faces whether they’ve been to Morocco before or have always imagined going there. The idea of Morocco has that special effect on people. So when Poet Lauréate of North Carolina, Jaki Shelton Green invited me to attend her sistaWrite Writer’s Retreat in Morocco, I jumped at the chance, I was all in.
When people ask me, “So, how was Morocco?” I’m most often stumped as to what to say: I wonder, where do I begin? I had such varied experiences there, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like that time in the souk (marketplace) when a young teenage boy intentionally felt me near my derrière and then ran off, when I turned to see if this was on purpose.
Many people seem to have forgotten that Morocco is a country located in Northern Africa, and it’s quite large. Many imagine that it’s in the Middle East, perhaps because of its strong Islamic faith. However, the original culture of Morrocco is that of the Amazighen people also known as Berber. Before the arrival of Islam, the Amazighen people had their way of life, culture, traditions, and rituals and there is a small segment of the population who still practice this way of life.
I had four distinct experiences in Morocco all having to do with location, location, location. Since each city played a big part in what I experienced, I’m going to tell this story in three different blog posts with the location as an essential element. First up, a remote indigenous village of Tinouainane. Come along!
My sister, Maat Kesa and I traveled together from Brooklyn to Morocco. We have been traveling buddies for decades. It’s so reassuring to travel internationally or otherwise with someone with whom you have a mutual love and respect, someone who has your back and you have theirs, no matter what goes down.
We arrived in Casablanca within six hours and had a transfer flight one hour away to Agadir. It was about 10:30 in the evening in Agadir when we landed, five hours ahead of Brooklyn. Awaiting us in Agadir was Jaki, her host El Habib, and his good buddy Houcine. It was El Habib’s family that was hosting us. El Habib Fellow Fullbright and musician. He teaches English in Taroudannt, Morocco. After grabbing a bite to eat, we headed into the night for an hour and a half drive into the mountains of Tinouainane. It’s always strange and mysterious arriving in a foreign land at night. I can tell you from the car I could see and feel that the landscape was arid, quiet, with very little greenery.
Finally there, a metal door painted in geometric designs opened onto a spacious and humble courtyard. There were a few bedrooms, enough for all of us to each have a private room but a couple of us shared, and one among us preferred to be solo. The rooms were long, reminding me of dormitory or sleep-away camp rooms. There were four beds in our room, three of us slept there. The very firm and comfortable mattresses sat on the floor, and there was a wooden Chester closet. Many native people still sleep on the floor even with modern amenities at their disposal. This sleeping choice reminded me of a friend who travels throughout Africa and shared with me that after sleeping on the floors in villages throughout Africa, even though he now lives back in the US, he can no longer sleep in a bed. He continues to sleep on the floor.
Before bed, of course, we had to bathe. The bathroom was very different from what we’re accustomed to. There was something that looked like a ceramic sink installed in the floor where one squats to relieve themselves. This way of relieving one’s self is a tradition practiced around the world by indigenous people. It’s more natural than sitting up high on a toilet. It makes it easier to eliminate, it prevents hemorrhoids, and it’s the natural default position for any toddler. Other than toddlers, we in the modern world have forgotten how to squat. In western culture, many are unable to get down there or get up from that position. In indigenous cultures, elders can still quat and get up from a squat. I digress. There was also a toilet (which I used even though through the practice of yoga, I can squat) a small sink, and a newly installed shower just for us. The shower was open style, no door or curtain. Why be confined? A small showerhead hung from the wall. Rustic is what you might call it.
There was no hot water running in the bathroom. No hot water was most interesting because about a month before traveling to Morocco I had begun the yogic practice of taking cold morning showers, a regimen for health and beauty. I had asked Maat Kesa to join me in this yogic tradition. She shared with me that she had mentioned to her husband that she has in the past followed me down many a crazy road, but the cold showers were where she drew the line. Now here she was in Morocco forced to do what I had asked her to volunteer to do in NY. I was shocked when only a few days in she gleefully shared that she was enjoying the cold showers. I knew the discipline of the cold showers would come in handy when I least expected it. Honestly though, the water there doesn’t get nearly as cold as our water. The water was comparatively temperate, but still shocking to someone who is accustomed to hot showers. Thank goodness for all the ways yoga has served and enriched my life. It was my only form of exercise besides walking, in Morocco.
I didn’t mind any of it (except one thing). I’ll get to that. In the meantime, I was finally having somewhat of an indigenous experience of living how the native people have lived in a place for centuries. We later realized that this was a retreat space also for the family that was hosting us. They live in a town in apartment buildings, just like we do in the States. For the summer they were here, and it seemed to be their mission to take care of us and make us feel at home and that they did. Habib’s father, mother, and his three sisters made sure we were nourished and taken care of. They served us fresh and delicious home-cooked meals prepared in a tagine. We had one of these lovely meals the next morning, and for every meal, for the five days, we were there. El Habib’s mother was the force behind our being nourished. She was busy, efficient, but quiet and always shared her sweet smile with us since she didn’t speak our language and we couldn’t speak hers.
Did I mention, it was 120 degree Fahrenheit for our first four days there? I kid you not. As you might imagine, there was no air conditioning in these adobe styled dwellings. Our room did have an oscillating fan. We had no choice but to follow the lead of our hosts during and lay low until the sun went down. There were six of us on this retreat. When the sun was high in the sky some of us read, others worked on their writing, some slept, and I also made Malas necklaces during those hot days as we patiently awaited sundown. The good news is that it was a dry heat, Thank God! And it was at least 20-25 degrees cooler indoors than it was outside during the heat of the day. The downside was that the opposite was true at night. The temps would drop down precipitously, and it would be cooler outside than in the bedroom. At night (and during the day) there was also the beauty of quiet. No sirens, no car horns, no loud noises of any kind. There was only the intermittent shrieks of laughter and crying of young girls and the “call to prayer” which sounded like a natural siren song with the backdrop of the majestic and silent Atlas Mountains.
At night after dinner, we would sit outside around the table and talk, enjoy the cool breezes, look at the stars and delight at the children and their antics. We were served the juiciest, most delicious fruit, watermelon, cantaloupe and other melons whose names I know not. There’s a cornfield that the family owns so on some nights there would be fresh popcorn whose kernels were straight from their farm. Yummy! There was also the tradition of making, pouring, and drinking mint tea.
I wasn’t sleeping well while in the village. Two nights, in particular, I stayed up all night long, and I wasn’t sleepy in the least. I later found out through happenstance that often the mint tea is first steeped in green tea, and I was drinking this caffeinated green /peppermint tea late at night. When I realized the culprit, I turned down the tasty mint tea tradition except for in the mornings.
One night Habib’s father invited us to take a walk around through the village. He opened the metal door to their compound, and as we stepped over the threshold, there was a world of people freshly bathed, now that the sun had gone down, perfumed and dressed for the evening hiatus. They gathered in small groups, chatting, giggling enjoying one another’s company. The women are covered in their colorful hijabs, boys playing ball, men gathering and teens strolling and riding bikes, and having fun. Photographs aren’t allowed of the women, so I took no photos of women I did not know. The photos I did take of the women in the family, I am not allowed to share. In any event, this night walk was like being in a time machine, the ancient looking buildings, the palm trees, the starry sky, the calm and quiet of a civil people, the love of a village. What an extraordinary experience, so peaceful, so sweet. Don’t get me wrong, I love a five-star hotel just a much as anyone else, but staying in this village was truly the kind of special and authentic experience that I shall always cherish.
The following night we met with Habib’s cousin and her husband who are building a fabulous home in the village. We visited with them while we waited for the women of the Argan Cooperative to receive us. Stay tuned for our Argan infused Body Oil that will launch this autumn.
Remember that one thing I mentioned that made me ready to leave the village? It was the growing foul odor of the bathroom. I carry sage and sacred resins with me whenever I travel, and they certainly came in handy. Had it not been for the bathroom situation, I could have stayed in the village indefinitely. As a perfumer, my nose is extra sensitive. Still, I am forever grateful for the experience of staying in this village. It confirmed for me my ability to be resilient and flexible in adjusting to indigenous lifestyles. Being in this village was a gift, one that I will long cherish. Living among indigenous people is something I’ve been longing to experience and Thanks to Jaki, El Habib, and his gracious family, I have now had my first taste, and I’m ready for more. I must travel to Morocco again and spend time in the desert.
Next week I will share our visit to an extraordinary palace, a respite on our way to the beach town of Agadir.