9/1, 7:45am train, Rabat to Marrakesh: I downed a piping hot glass of coffee just minutes before my train left for a 5 hour journey to Marrakesh. Initially, it looked like there would be standing room only on the train, but amazingly, 3 men stood up out of their seats and let 3 of us women (weaving in the isle with our bags) sit; they made no eye contact and headed to the back of the train. It was the nicest gesture from a stranger I think I had received in a week of living in Rabat. That small gesture was a great beginning to a wonderful two week adventure through Morocco, starting with Marrakesh. Once arriving in Marrakesh, I said goodbye to a few RY friends who I had made the journey with, and found a taxi to drive me out to Amizmiz, about an hour away. Amizmiz is a mountain town in the Atlas Mountain range, and I was meeting my guide for a private running tour through mountains and Berber villages. (Berbers are the native people of Morocco; Arabs didn’t show up until the 7th Century, spreading Islam. Berbers fled to the hills, fought back and won many times, but eventually converted to Islam themselves. They still live in remote mountain villages, speak a different language, and have very different tribal customs from the Arabs.) I planned on meeting back up with my friends later that night in Marrakesh. Was I nervous to travel alone? Yes. But my guide’s wife said I’d be fine on that short journey and I was cheating a bit by taking a car directly there, not using a shared ride or bus; I was about as safe as I could be.
I found Marc and his company, ‘Wild Goose Adventures’, via another expat group in Marrakesh (called ‘Running in Morocco’) in an effort to explore the Atlas Mountain range. I met Marc’s family when I arrived in Amizmiz. ‘I can’t be seen with another woman unless she’s also seen with my wife… it’s a small town, this is the culture here.’ He made a phone call to his wife to confirm she was home. I wasn’t quite sure how these voyeurs were going to see us all inside the house together to make sure nothing sneaky was happening, but I let that go. (Later, he would tell me the community was skeptical because everyone was having affairs, which blew my mind. In this proper, judgmental and religious country? Amazing!) I met his adorable children Dominic (1 1/2) and Eloise (5) along with his wonderful wife Helen. I dressed into running clothes in the bathroom of their apartment and we set off to run 15km (a little over 9mi), uphill, downhill, and through 6 Berber villages. The last couple miles were a little tough, but overall, it was a fun way to see the villages up close, and have the geology and history of the area explained to me. I got to learn a little bit about trail running- mainly, that I can actually do it… and that you absolutely need a guide -or at minimum a man with you- if you’re approaching villages in this country. I asked Marc about raising kids in Morocco, and specifically about raising them in Amizmiz… he fought moving here from the UK at first, but his wife had loved living here as an adventure guide in the years before they were married and desperately wanted to move back. They felt Morocco was somewhat untouched, at least compared to Europe, and that it was a great place to raise a family. Certainly cheaper, and less technology to influence children. Bonus- they would learn 1, possibly 2 languages in addition to English (Berber being the 2nd foreign language next to Arabic). When we finished our run, I showered before being offered homemade carrot cake (that I still think of) and wolfed down 2 huge pieces before eyeing a 3rd… and of course, we had tea before I left.
A few things I learned: In Berber life, a donkey is the equivalent to a car. They’re expensive and relied on for most transportation, including taking goods to the market to sell. Sadly, they don’t treat the animals that well- something which is engrained in their culture. I saw children and adults alike beating their donkeys. A few times, I noticed donkeys walking themselves unchaperoned to their next job, or home… and I never saw them eat. They would just stand there. (Not like horses at all!) Such patient, sweet animals. Berber children walk 1+ mi to school (down very steep cliffs, and obviously back up them afterwards) and are some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Another thing Marc mentioned about Arab children in town: discipline isn’t usually enforced until they’re 10 or older, so kids can stay up as late as they want- and I noticed this in every city and town we visited after that. It would be 3am and a group of kids would be running through a medina, or tossing rocks from a corner.
Pictures from the hike:
I bused it 1 hour back to Marrakesh, then cab’ed it to our Riad in the medina (my driver helped me find the house through the maze of streets). A medina is an open marketplace and residential area. A Riad is a home in the medina with an open roof. Historically, Riads were hotels for travelers- their animals could stay in the open-aired center of the building, while their owners moved into rooms overlooking the central ground floor. Marrakesh’s medina is enclosed in red mud walls and was built in the 1120’s. I arrived at 10pm and we met a group of people out for dinner. The medina was hopping. Donkeys, sheep, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians were moving at lightening speed through the narrow roads. We were constantly jumping out of the way of motorcycles or donkeys. Sellers of all types line the walkways- baked bread, desserts, shoes, leather, spices, dried fruit -you name it. The dinner we went to was unbelievable (Dar Cherifa, recommended from Trip Advisor), a restaurant in a Riad with an elegance I didn’t see again until Fes. The food was impeccable- I had couscous and chicken, moroccan salads, desserts, and mint tea, of course.
We would spend all the following day exploring Marrakesh before beginning our 5 day safari tour, ending in Fes. Fes is Morocco’s 2nd largest city and home to the world’s oldest University (University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in the 9th century by a woman).