First Steps On A New Continent: One Week in Morocco

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Having never been anywhere remotely Middle Eastern or African, Morocco was fundamentally unique among my travel experiences. It was no surprise that the food rocked, the ancient buildings are beautiful, and the Mediterranean climate subsumes a desert landscape. Here are a few things I learned, that I was not necessarily expecting, whilst exploring Rabat and Chefchaouen with friends, learning Arabic on placement.

Marrakech is not the capital city

Those familiar with the region will no doubt be appalled by my presumption. With its bustling medieval medina, street stalls and other tourist traps Marrakech is widely talked about and visited by foreigners, but Rabat is the capital, or at least has been since 1912.

The palm-flanked path up to Rabat's ancient Kasbah, Morocco.
The Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat is over 850 years old. Credit: Kieran Murray

Rabat is an underrated tourist spot, but it’s a gem: it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The well-planned city blocks, street cafes and cool breezes reminded me of parts of the South of France, with only the palm trees suggesting otherwise. The old town and medina are enveloped by the enormous sandstone walls of the King’s palace. The medieval ruins of the Chellah also house a botanical garden and resident population of white storks. Rabat doesn’t have a specific look, reflecting its balance between ancient history and future ambitions.

The fewer tourists combined with police presence also mean the scams and market harassment for which Marrakesh is notorious are absent; we wandered around the market in the medina for hours and were not bothered once.

The tap water is (to some extent) safe to drink

It is properly filtered, but bacterial differences mean it often causes difficulties for foreigners, myself included.

Moroccan Arabic is unique

Moroccans speak Moroccan Arabic or Darija, which is as different from Standard Arabic as Italian is to English. Centuries of occupation, warfare, and trade with France and Spain have meant some of this vocabulary has become part of the Moroccan language, as well as elements from several languages of the indigenous Amazigh or Berber people. There are also additional regional dialects.

All businesses have portraits of King Mohammed VI

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The current King of Morocco has reigned since 1999 and is everywhere. Most eateries have photos of him and his family over all four walls. Unlike our Queen, the King maintains power over most domestic politics. His rule has solidified Morocco’s position as a moderate Muslim country and regional economic leader, prioritising improved human rights, reducing poverty and increasing rights for women. Following Arab Spring protests, he held a referendum on a series of constitutional reforms to further democratise the country which won by a landslide, although critics claim these changes were insufficient. Direct criticism of the monarchy in Morocco remains a huge taboo, and also a crime.

The driving is insane

One taxi driver summarised: “In Morocco, if you respect the law, you are going to be in an accident. That’s why it is important not to respect the law”. It’s considered insulting to put on a seatbelt when you get into a taxi, as this presumes the driver is going to drive dangerously. A friend told me that she indirectly almost caused a colossal pile-up when an eighteen wheeler driver peered out of his window to catcall her and almost veered into oncoming rush hour traffic, at one of the busiest junctions in Rabat. With everyone on the same page on this, vehicles mostly avoid each other. Worrying will not do you any favours as a visitor.

A lot of Europe’s drugs go through Chefchaouen

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The beautiful blue Spanish city of Chefchaouen is a fantastic destination for hiking, market shopping, and phenomenal scenery – but also has a reputation as a hotspot for cannabis tourism. Known as ‘kif’, the drug is grown nearby in the Rif mountains, and despite its questionable legal status, many tourists (not me!) are also attracted by the inexpensive, high-quality product. Huge mountain cannabis farms are apparently tolerated by the authorities, which you can even go and see on tours. Morocco is the world’s top supplier of cannabis, with 38,000 tonnes produced annually, used locally and smuggled elsewhere.

Interestingly, Latin American smugglers are increasingly turning to Morocco’s cannabis trade for help smuggling cocaine into Europe. Although cannabis shows no sign of disappearing, with an opposition leader even entertaining legalisation, this association with harder drugs has encouraged Moroccan authorities to crack down. They generally don’t bother tourists, but our hostel was told not to allow Moroccans to stay, as police claim those that try are likely sellers or drug mules on the run.

Everybody dresses magnificently

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Moroccans sure know how to dress. This includes men and women of all shapes, sizes and ages, with people in traditional djellabas (above),  and more modern liberal dress wandering around, sometimes in the same group. The coexistence of diverse cultures, ethnic groups and attitudes in Morocco are evident even as an outsider, and make it a fascinating country with so much to offer.

If you’re keen on rich history, mouth-watering cuisine and something distinctly non-European without breaking the bank on flights, Morocco is a great choice. It’s almost certainly the safest country in Africa for tourists, and locals are mostly friendly and accommodating. I had a great time and was fortunate enough to meet and be shown around by some awesome people. As well as what I saw, Fez, Tangier, Marrakech, Casablanca, Essauoreia, the Sahara and plenty more warrant trips of their own.

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Kieran Murray is a 4th year student on the MSci Biology & Marine Biology course at Southampton. His interests lie in tropical ecology, palaeontology and mass extinctions. He lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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