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Morocco: a winter of sand and snow

This is a place full of contradictions, of contrasts, and of unexpected textures.

The moment I flew into Morocco was the moment I knew it: this is not a place you get used to. This is a place you get lost in. 

And maybe the guide books will tell you all that. Maybe you know it from seeing it in the movies. But take my word for it, I should know. Because right now, I can’t find my way back to the group I came here with. 

Where I am is in Fes, inside the walls of Fes El Bali. Founded as a capital of the Isdrid dynasty in the late 700s, it is the oldest medina in the city: ancient walls, decorated gates, market stalls, and everything.

Fes El Bali is the city’s oldest medina.

Around me are shops selling pots and pans, another packed to the brim with fruits, and there’s one that’s selling the most intricate collection of lamps I’m likely to see. The smell of fresh dates, olives, and spices float in the drizzly winter air, thrown in with the sounds of vendors hawking wares, clomping hooves, and the murmur of the morning crowds. Mules and donkeys plod along the narrow streets and alleys from time to time, hauling things here and there. 

In the medina, there are no cars, and there will never be: there just isn’t any room. This is a medieval place that has remained active and mostly unchanged for hundreds of years.

Other than that, I don’t know where I am exactly. But as places go, the labyrinthine medina isn’t a bad place to get lost in.

Life in the medina has remained active for several hundred years.

Just two days before, I’d flown into Casablanca—Morocco’s largest city—on an invitation from Rajah Travel and Insight Vacations. Insight is a company that specializes in guided journeys across the world and this was going to be a ten-day trip across the best of the country: mountains, ancient buildings, the Sahara. They take you around in a luxury coach, put you up in plush hotels, and they send you a travel director you can basically ask about anything. 

But there’s no helping someone who has no sense of direction at all. Despite being right in the middle of the group, and this being only the third day, I’d managed to get lost. That has to be some kind of talent. But if there’s a place for that talent to shine, it’s here. Because at least things are interesting.

Right then, a lanky man in a leather jacket approaches me. 

“You are with Momo?” He asks me. “Insight? Come with me.”

I hesitate for a while, but then I follow him. Momo was the name of our local guide, so this wasn’t just some random person. What else was I going to do, anyway? Get even more lost?

The Chouara tannery, an ancient building where they still make leather in the traditional way.

He leads me to the Chouara tannery, an 11th-century building where they still make leather in the traditional way. Natural dyes, pigeon droppings, urine: that sort of thing. And also that sort of smell. Inside, our guide, Momo (who seems just a little bit anxious) is waiting for me. I rejoin the group, pretend that nothing happened, and tip the man ten dirham in thanks.

Then I grab his shoulder and go: “I get lost again, you find me and bring me to Momo, okay?”

He nods and talks to Momo for a while. At a guess—and I’m being optimistic here—he’s probably telling him where he found me.

The Most Popular Name in Morocco

Momo, his real name is Mohamed, and he’s our local guide for today. Insight Vacations does that from time to time, gives you local guides who can tell the story of where you are, the story of every ornate door, historic building, or curious tradition. Having come from Fes, Momo knows the medina like the back of his jillaba: the loose, long-sleeved robes that they wear out here when the weather gets rough.

Momo, wearing his jillaba, as we continue to walk around the medina.

By now, the drizzle has turned into full-blown rain, and we could all use one. Still, the rain is something they love in Fes. They see it as a blessing. And as we move along the streets, the rain washes away the dirt and the grime, leaving the air just that much colder. So maybe it is.

When we get to the last stop, our travel director—also named Mohamed—is waiting to take us back into the road. 

And if you’re getting a little confused here, let me explain: no visit to Morocco is ever complete without meeting someone named Mohamed. Mohamed—and the other forms of the name—is extremely popular here. The current King is named Mohammed VI, there’s a footballer called Mohamed, several famous actors are also Mohameds. You can see where this is going.

I’d met a few Mohameds over the journey, and one, who was a waiter at a hotel bar, had told me: “It is the best name.”

It’s the name of the greatest prophet in Islam, Muhammad, and it’s one that they don’t mind sharing. 

And while there might be a lack of first name diversity, Morocco makes up for it by being a land that is as varied as it is vast. This is a country full of contradictions, of contrasts, of unexpected textures. And if what you know of Morocco comes from the movie Casablanca (that was certainly the case with me) then we both have a lot of ground to cover. 

The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.

Just outside the medina of Fes, an urban landscape sprawls across the city, giving you a curious sense of going back and forth in time. In the same way, Casablanca is a largely modern place, but step inside Rick’s Cafe and you’re back in the 1940s, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart still playing on a television by the bar. The oasis town of Erfoud lays claim to part of the Sahara desert, yet just a few hours away there’s the snowy city of Ifran. 

This is a country that doesn’t lack diversity. And here, we’re about to see that.

From Snow to Sand

We arrive in Ifran on the morning of the next day. Ifran is a snow-covered city at the top of the Middle Atlas mountains. Blanketed in white, the place looks straight out of Switzerland. It was chilly in Fes, maybe even cold, but here it’s actually freezing.

Ifran is a snow-capped city in the Middle Atlas mountains.

We spend a good half hour at a large cafe, drinking Moroccan tea and downing pastries, then step outside to take photos in the snow. After that, we’re on our way to the oasis town of Erfoud. And this is when it gets a little surreal. 

Come noontime, driving past the snow-capped mountains of Ifran, the landscape slowly gives way to fall, then to spring. And by mid-afternoon, when we get to Erfoud, it’s summer in the desert. 

This, to me, is strange. Not strange in a bad way, but wonderful-strange. It’s like watching a timelapse of the seasons—in reverse, in just a few hours. And this is where it hits you again: Morocco isn’t a place you get used to. It’s a place you get lost in. 

Maybe not quite in the same way I did in Fes, but you get lost all the same. In how diverse everything is, how vast, how surreal. This isn’t me being awestruck or anything, but that is how Morocco makes you feel. Like you can never cover enough ground. Especially when the ground turns from snow to sand. 

At the town of Erfoud, we leave our stuff at the hotel: a kasbah by the side of the road, which is like a small fortress. I wash my face, not bothering to unpack, then board an SUV to get to the dunes. This, I think, will be the highlight of the trip for me.

The dunes of the Sahara.

Sand and dust get thrown up in the air as we go off-road and head to the middle of the desert. It takes more than a few minutes, but after a while, the dunes appear on the horizon. Massive, like mountains of sand. 

“What are the dunes made of?” I ask Mohamed, who’s with me in the car. 

“Sand,” he answers.  

Okay, so they really are mountains of sand. But bear with me here, I’m new to this. 

Anyway, we get down near a group of nomads—the Tuareg—who have made camp in the area. Small groups of tents lie across the desert, forming a tiny town that, should they choose, may not even be here when the time comes. Crowds of nomads in blue tunics lead camels and travelers across the dunes, dotting the otherwise empty landscape with a sense of life.

I walk across the sand—it’s like a fine powder beach without water—and take the scene in.

Nomads guide camels and travelers across the desert.

Flying into anywhere in an age of Instagram and Photoshop, you learn to expect a few things. Or at least, you learn to expect less. You know the colors will be different when you see them. You know landscapes will be far less dramatic when you get there. You get used to things not being what they are online.

Only, in Morocco, and especially in the Sahara, that’s not exactly what happens. Here is something not a single photograph—or even the hundred or so photos that I took—can capture completely.

Mohamed leads me to a small camp, and we enter the place slowly. He greets the man inside and I touch nothing out of respect as we sit by the fire. That they would let a stranger in their home is surprising. That it actually seems normal is even more so.

Mohamed warms his hands in the Tuareg camp.

But this isn’t the first time the people of Morocco have shown me their hospitality. Just the other night, I’d been invited over by a couple named Ghali and Sanaa Alaoui, businesspeople from the country. They welcomed me as a brother, served me their traditional tajine cooking, and made me take my pick from an incredibly well-stocked bar (I picked whisky, because of course). Then they told me that, should I decide to come back, Morocco would be my second home. And maybe it will be. 

At their heart, this is a country whose people welcome strangers. Even the ones who tend to get lost all the time. And you see it in the way they treat each other. On the streets, instead of saying “hello,” they wish each other peace. 

As Mohamed explains it, they try to live their lives without bothering anyone. And that is easier to believe when you’ve seen it yourself. Once, in Marrakech, I saw a carriage driver cut ahead of a car on the road. The other driver was clearly startled, and yet they let it pass, the man in the carriage blowing him a kiss in apology. Then they just went their separate ways.  

It is a beautiful thing, that. Something we could use more of in the world. 

Sunset at the Sahara

When Mohamed and I step back outside the camp and into the open desert, the sun is beginning to go down. We make our way to a small hill, where the rest of the group is waiting. They ask me where I’ve been, and I can’t even begin to say. There’s just so much here that it would take hours to explain. So we all start opening bottles of beer and wine instead, in time to catch the sunset. 

Beside me, at the top of the hill,  is one of the nomads. His name is Yusuf, he tells me, and he’s a merchant who sells souvenirs from the desert. He tells me what life is like in the Sahara, tells me about the dunes, about the camels. I ask him if he would consider living in the city and he says no. Because the desert might be vast, might be inhospitable, but it isn’t ever empty. I ask to take his portrait and he agrees.

Then he lays out his souvenirs, tries to sell them to the group. I pick up a small ornate bottle, something to put on the shelf back at home. This to me, is a gesture of good will. I may not be able to speak Arabic, may not be able to wish him peace. Still, it costs nothing to make friends.

Yusuf, taking out the bottle I bought as the sun sets in the Sahara.

At this point the journey isn’t over. We have a few days yet to go to. But I’ll have to tell that story another time. Sometime soon. And it’s going to be about everywhere we went—Marrakech, Essaouira, more of Casablanca. (Edit: that story is here).

But let me end this by saying that Morocco isn’t like anywhere at all. Vast, diverse, surreal: you know where this is going. I’ve said it before, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

Here is a chance to get the city into your head, to hold the snow in your hands, to get the sand under your feet. But more than anything, here is a chance to let the people into your heart. Because, take it from me, they’ll do the same to you.

Back here, they have a saying, and it goes: In sha Allah. It means “if God wills it,” and that things only ever happen by divine grace. 

And if that’s the case, if it’s truly meant to happen, then no matter how lost I get, I just might find my way back. 

To catch a glimpse of what Morocco is like on the ground, watch the video below.