It’s a strange mind-set that encourages those of a meandering nature to travel. You have to be prepared for anything. Morocco really tested my abilities in every way; physically, mentally, socially. It’s not just being thrown in at the deep end with some brand new people, (most of whom were older than me) but also journeying to some quite terrifying places on one’s own. Of course, the Jemaa El Fna of Marrakesh is hardly the most terrifying place on the planet, but the hum of human activity was so different to that of back home that I felt the need to double-take at every little thing. Guides and friends constantly telling me to be ‘street-wise’ and ‘keep one’s eyes open’ certainly left me with a permanent sense of impending doom; Even when halfway up a mountain.
For most, growing up with sun, sea, and sand was the norm; however something my parents tried to steer clear of. For my older brother and I, holidays were a chance to tour Europe and beyond bit by bit, learning more about culture, art, and history until, after two sweltering weeks in the baking sun, we eventually trudged back to school more fatigued (and sunburned) than before we had left.
In this way, I have become savvy to the holiday planning scheme where every detail is mapped out before you leave, particularly in cities like Paris, Rome and Barcelona, which have been done to death (in a good way, obviously). I’m hugely grateful to my parents for encouraging a ‘need to know’ mind-set which has left me incapable of packing off my entire wardrobe onto an Easyjet flight and sitting on some beach with the new Martina Cole novel; but when halfway up Jebel El Toubkal, the highest mountain in Northern Africa second only to Kilimanjaro, I did find myself longing for a piña colada in some ridiculously overpriced resort.
Morocco is a totally different world, however, and even though I have visited a multitude of other muslim states, this one really stands out. The environment can completely change if you happen to doze off in the minibus for twenty minutes. Within the space of two days, we had ventured from arable farmland, to the soaring peaks of the Atlas Mountains, to desert, and back again. Personally, I found the picturesque steppes filled with Berber tends rearing horses and goats the prettiest. These resplendent milieus coupled with the rich, lively throng of market stalls overflowing with ripe fruits and spices that envelope you, as if to lift to up to the sky, and small alcoves brimming with every and any trinket imaginable are so remarkably different to the conservative culture of the peoples themselves, though. This could be due to a lack of a presence of alcohol for most of the trip, but I really did feel a sense of foreboding in some places, despite the view. Obviously this trepidation was offset by the beautiful markets and cerulean streets of Chefchaouen, but it’s still there somewhere.
Luckily, the World Cup was on while we were there, so some evenings we could sit back and watch the footie without too many offers of marriage, henna tattoos or children shoving bracelets in our faces.
It’s very clear that backpacking is a necessary and vastly different experience that all students should to some degree attempt; however if you can’t handle a month without Instagram or Twitter, don’t go.
But my technology/make-up/western hiatus was short-lived when everyone else brought along their iPhones. At one point the chorus of ‘Ah Shit’ was so loud when we found out that one hostel didn’t have WiFi that it turned a few of the locals’ heads. Typical.
This was a stunning contrast to Toubkal, however, where I felt I had really cast myself into the abyss. At the risk of sounding VERY middle class, I am intensely indebted to my parents for kitting me out for this trip. Although most of it was plain sailing, Toubkal was one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted in my life. And I did struggle. We completed it in two days, however the thirty-six kilometre trek in 40°C heat really took it’s toll on the group. Essentially, we climbed the equivalent to half of Everest with virtually no training. Luckily, we had some fantastic sherpas and the Aussie lads in our group setting the pace, so getting to the summit was a must.
The only problems were altitude sickness and temperature, which at both points induced tears from many people, including myself. Swollen hands and vicious headaches became so painful that the last three kilometre vertical climb to the summit in 4am darkness with -10°C winds was like walking through absolute hell. Some people swore that it was tougher than the entire Inca Trail in South America. My henna looked so out of place on top of a snow covered mountain in the middle of Africa. I still can hardly believe I got to (translate: was dragged up to) the top. Luckily in this day and age I have the pics to prove it.
Even though the mountain was a feat I shall not be repeating for a while, waterfall jumping was diverting and entertaining, though the diet of tajine and unidentifiable meat took it’s toll on the whole group in the form of a stomach bug which reared it’s ugly head for a few days in the second week. In all honesty, at one point, whilst retching over a toilet bowl in the middle of a Berber village, I did beg for my mum. Being ill in a foreign country with very scarce medical help is terrifying, but obviously my limited French speaking capabilities and the existence of a well-stocked medical kit of Dioralyte and Immodium was the equivalent to finding the holy grail in the bottom of my sixty-five litre rucksack.
Aside from that little… umm… hiccup; the heat of the Maghreb was strangely tolerable down on the ground. Though any indication of a tan has yet to reveal itself, the break from Exeter storms and Essex drizzle was a welcome delight. With virtually no other plans for summer bar those involving alcohol (and a job), I tried to make the most of it, despite my (previously) dodgy stomach. Luckily, en-route to many towns and touristy areas, the menu became much more friendly to western tums. Though it’s fantastically delicious, I don’t think I can face another ‘omelette berber’ for a while.
Bar the diet, and sometimes the heat, travel certainly did take my mind of the stress and strain of everyday life. As a ‘worrier’, very few holidays actually achieve this; however sitting barefoot on a camel in the middle of the Sahara Desert on results day was strangely liberating. In short, I didn’t really give a sh*t.
As it was my second camel trek, I did derive some joy from watching others try to hang on as our camels lethargically traversed the coral sand in the evening sun. As one of the most beautiful places in the world, the tangerine dream that is the Sahara was somewhat lost due to the fact that the rest of the country was bloody orange as well. Strangely enough though, by the time we arrived in the middle of nowhere, there was a distinct absence of conversation as all twenty seven of us took in that milky peach desert which progressed to amber, and eventually crimson as the sun sank smoothly behind the dunes. Admittedly, snippets of ‘Arabian Nights’ from Aladdin could be heard in between gusts of wind, and indeed took hold in my head for most of the trip, which included Marrakesh. As the old city itself does not have any buildings higher than two stories, you can see quite a way, so long as the tajine pots and lanterns don’t distract you. In reality, Marrakesh is a humdrum of old and new, with much of the eleventh century wall supporting kiosks plastered with Coke and Evian logos.
So despite most of our tour of Morocco looking like a scene straight out of a Disney movie, the parts of the trip that peaked my interest the most were far from anything like that, in that we visited Ait Ben Haddou, which among many other things plays host to a multitude of film and TV sets including Gladiator and Game of Thrones; as well as climb amongst the stones ravaged by time in the ancient Roman city of Volubilis. Looking out across the expansive valley that Volubilis overlooks, nomming on my camel burger,(yes, CAMEL MEAT) I realised that I was definitely on the right course at university. I never realised that travelling so far from home could teach me so much about life back in the UK. Of course, a part of me will always want to live out in a tent in the foothills, but my life is in England, but coming back home, I no longer feel overwhelmed or swept along by the rip-tide of British mainstream education, even if that is in hindsight.
Thankfully, we did end up in the most picturesque town of them all. Essaouira, the Moroccan version of a Grecian fishing port, was so idyllic that I rather regretted leaving it. The beach stretched out until the horizon and the market stalls were so chilled out compared to the buzz and urgency of Marrakesh. Our longing for the beach somewhat intensified when we discovered that our flight home was delayed by fifteen hours due to air traffic controller strikes in France. (Queue snide remark about the French) Being stuck in an airport/random hotel for an extra day as a student who has limited budget really does suck. Though a dip in the pool was gratifying, once we actually got onto a plane at half past midnight, the announcement that we had to wait another hour and forty minutes was enough to send all two-hundred of us into late night shells of despair. The student in me, however, was happy to know that at least the hot chocolate was free.
Though my little adventure did not end the way any of us planned, our group do continue to go adventuring. I believe Snowdon is next on the cards; though I believe taking the train up counts as cheating…