An adventurous itinerary took our Deputy Editor out of his comfort zone and placed him on the back of a camel, inside bustling Marrakesh souks and in the kitchen of a remote village home in the Atlas mountains. By Sumeet Keswani
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that my life has been fairly adventurous so far. I may not have chased a hurricane or got attacked by a squirrel while taking a selfie (‘Florida Man’ on a slow news day), but my life throws up its share of surprises around the globe. So, when Airbnb Adventures—launched last month—invited me to Morocco, I was a bit circumspect. My first thoughts: I’m not diving from an airplane or sandboarding in the Sahara Desert. But Airbnb’s latest segment of Experiences doesn’t entail extreme sports, the oft-presumed loose meaning of adventure. The ‘Adventures’ represent immersive and offbeat multi-day tours led by local operators and guides who help you reach hard-to-access cultures, communities and natural wonders, and engage you in fascinating tales of the land. That’s all the adventure I need on my travels.
As my flight descends near the northern tip of the African continent, I get my first view of Marrakesh, arguably the tourism capital of Morocco. Undulating shades of red and brown sprawl over an endless desert. The ruddy monotony is broken only by tiny settlements, hilly carbuncles and the drifting shadows of low-hanging clouds that are evenly scattered over land, their cotton-candy dominion ending abruptly at the coastline. Near the shimmering airport, the land takes on the green hue of orderly plantations, while the rosy hue recedes to drape every man-made structure in sight. I’m later told by Chaima ait el Mekki, our local guide from the Rustic Pathways Foundation, that all the structures in Marrakesh follow this colour scheme as a rule— implemented to maintain the identity of ‘the red city’.
Marrakesh’s population composition is 99 percent Muslim, one percent minorities—including mostly Jews and Christians, and in this kingdom, religion and state are virtually inseparable.
Our first experience, or adventure, is an Arabic calligraphy lesson, and it takes place at Chaima’s home. The stairway to her living room is flanked by walls covered with exquisite mosaic tile-work called zellige—it is as integral to the homes as the red colouration. The calligraphy lesson is conducted by Abdel Jalil, a 58-year-old local who has perfected the skill over 32 years and speaks in darija, an Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco. Rustic Pathways’ guide, Charaf Monassir, does a stellar job of translating the master as he lays bare the tools of his trade—kalam, ink and parchment—and elaborates on the various scripts used in Arabic calligraphy.
Ruqaa is employed to write long text on small leather canvases (like deer skin); Kufic is said to be the oldest calligraphic script used for copying books, including the holy Quran; Diwani is a creative font wielded to write poems and official letters—it was famously found in the Ottoman Palace after the fall of the empire; Farsi finds its origins in the Persian Empire and I immediately identify it as the one used by my Indian Muslim friends; Thuluth has two versions, one of them beautifully intricate, and is found inside mosques in Jerusalem and Morocco; Fatimid Kufic uses geometry to form letters and was used by Egyptians in the 12th century. Jalil takes us—a motley bunch of people from India, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—through the most elementary form of the simplest Arabic alphabets and then encourages us to write our names by following his strokes. At the end, he grants one calligraphy request of each participant. I employ the translation skills of my guides again to make Jalil write a haiku I once composed in English. A Japanese art form wielded by an Indian translated from English by two Moroccans and written by another on parchment in a traditional Arabic script—if this isn’t an adventure, I don’t know what is.
Next on our itinerary is a stroll through the old city, or medina, of Marrakesh. The medina is surrounded by thick ochre walls with distinct holes (left by the scaffolding used in their making); the ramparts are unmissable markers of the ancient capital of the Almohads (1147–1269). Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the medina is home to bustling souks that sell everything from lamps to pet turtles to indigenous spices at negotiable rates; ancient monuments like the Koutubiya Mosque, which houses the highest minaret (77 metres) in the city; the artistically carved and painted residences of the Bahia Palace; and the colourful open-air theatre of Jemaâ El Fna Square, an Intangible Cultural Heritage. We go on a guided tour of these monuments—an exploration rife with juicy historical titbits. Our tour ends at the public square, where a mesmerising act of art, craft, dining and commerce is playing out. Horse-carriages and mopeds criss-cross the Jemaâ El Fna Square with reckless abandon—you can’t tread this place gazing at your smartphone. Lest you be knocked off your feet or step on a snake! Among the many food, juice and herb stalls, there are troupes of snake charmers making cobras sway to their tunes and putting vipers to coiled sleep. If you are not explicit and crystal-clear in your answer to their persistent peddling, you may end up with a snake around your neck and find yourself lighter by a few thousand rupees for the unsolicited reptilian services rendered. Even clicking a photo incurs an exorbitant fee, especially if you are a foreign tourist. The same rule applies to Gnawa musicians who toss the tassels on their traditional hats in hypnotic circles and rope magicians who undo knots faster than you can blink.
After I’ve precariously stripped my neck off a live, albeit non-venomous, water snake and given it back to the man who placed it there while I wasn’t looking, I scurry to a spice shop nearby. Morocco is the only place on Earth where argan thrives, so argan oil is the centrepiece of the sales pitch. The local mint tea and a peculiar ‘slimming tea’ also feature on the list. Curious mixtures of spices meant for different tajine recipes crop up on the shelves. Younes, the atar (spice trader), hardsells alternative healing—from essential oils that help you sleep to potlis of nigella black seeds, which purportedly cure sinus and migraine headaches. Some jars conspicuously stand out with their morbid occupants—animal skins and bones. I’m told by our guides that these are used by a certain section of the populace that believes in black magic. It’s an anachronistic ingredient of Paradis des Spices, the spice shop that, like many others in the city, gets its name from the French colonial history of Marrakesh. The central region of Morocco, including the red city, was a French protectorate for 44 years till 1956, while the northern and southern regions were occupied by Spain. Even today, these colonial influences permeate everything here—from people’s names to the languages taught in schools to food preferences (macaroons sit beside msemmen [flaky bread] in bakeries).
The adventure I’m least excited about involves climbing atop an animal not known for a graceful gait. But there’s no escaping the camel in Morocco. Camel rides are a tourist norm in Palmeraie, a palm grove on the outskirts of the city that traces its origins to the Almoravids. A 30-minute camel ride among planted palms is a poor simulation of the Bedouins’ life in the Sahara, but it turns into an adventure when my camel, in an attempt to shake off pestering flies, almost tips me over. “This is madness!” I shriek—to the camel and the flies and the palms all at once. The camel briefly looks back at its terrified rider and continues on its caper, as if saying, “This is Morocco.”
Although I’d have loved to visit the cultural capital of Fez, or the ‘blue city’ of Chefchaouen or the famed Casablanca, Marrakesh is the most apt introduction to Morocco. After all, the country reportedly gets its name from a mutilation of the Portuguese pronunciation of Marrakech, Marrocos. And since Marrakesh sits at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, it is only right that I visit the range, which is so popular that pilots announce its views to the cabin. My final two adventures lie in the lap of the Atlas Mountains—in a tiny village called Tizi N’oucheg, a two-hour drive from the heart of Marrakesh.
The everyday life of Tizi N’oucheg is as charming as rural mountain life ought to be. The poultry is free range, as are the kids. Here too, brick and mud houses reflect the red of the earth; they sit proudly perched on a pedestal made of terraced fields where the locals grow pea, potato, onion, walnut and almond, among other things. From our cosy homestay, which charms with its abundant mint tea and rustic low-seating, we can spot the highest mountain peak in all of North Africa, Toubkal (4,167 metres). The owner of the house, Rachid Mandili, is an entertaining guide on our seven-kilometre trek through the village and the mountains. He introduces us to the various facets of village life with a business-like demeanour, but poses for the camera with a childlike grin against the wildflowers of the mountains. Like many in the region, the village was first home to the Amazigh (or Berbers), the indigenous people of North Africa. Every Amazigh village has a small public square that hosts all the important functions. Mandili also shows us the ruins of the tribal chief’s home, which, three centuries ago, was the locals’ refuge from tribal attacks. This home was spared from attacks as a rule of land. We trek to a great vantage point to view Jebel Yagour, but the path goes through a range of tasking terrain, featuring streams, boulders and grassy hill slopes dotted by grazing cattle and horses. A storm knocks on the door for the entire duration of our return trek, but is kept at bay by a high rocky cliff. It rumbles in protest and I hear it roar above me at night as we sleep the peaceful sleep of the mountains.
Morocco is known for its culinary delights. Tourists seek out traditional fare in Marrakesh (when they are not seeking out the famed Moroccan hash!). So while we are in the charmingly rustic premises of Tizi N’oucheg, we try our hands at cooking tajines, guided by the skilled hands of Khadija, Chaima’s mother. After we’ve chopped vegetables, rolled meatballs and added a gazillion spices, the tajines are left to cook in their eponymous earthern pots—on coal, in the sun. The side dishes are aplenty—sweet carrot, savoury zucchini and baba ganoush with a range of bread, and the dessert is the healthiest one I’ll ever have—orange slices with a sprinkling of cinnamon. A mountain trek may be the benchmark, but for a kitchen rookie, cooking a traditional tajine in a remote Moroccan village is the real adventure.
A MOROCCAN ADVENTURE
The culturally rich and developed city of Marrakesh is a good introduction to Morocco, and the Atlas Mountains are a small hop away.
In the medina of Marrakesh, Airbnb offers numerous riads that marry old architecture with modern comforts. Situated in the heart of the red city, just 10 minutes from the Jemaâ El Fna square, Palm Menara Hotel offers easy access to many sites of interest. Starts from INR 9,518 per night, plus taxes.
Morocco’s Medinas and Mountains: This four-day itinerary starts from INR 1,05,558 per person.
Some other adventures around the world:
Walk with Elephants in Chiang Mai: A three-night glamping trip that lets you witness rescued tuskers in the forest.
Paranormal tour of the US Southwest: Hunt for traces of aliens at infamous sites in Arizona and Nevada.
Around The World in 80 Days: Six continents, eight modes of transport, and 12 weeks. See airbnb.co.in.