Misconceptions about Morocco

This year I made a point to attend the Travel and Adventure show in Washington, DC to discover new places to add to my list of destinations. One booth immediately caught my attention with it's brightly colored backdrop (I even took a selfie in front of it), authentic hand-woven rug and attendees chatting like old friends with the lovely couple manning the booth.

I met up with one half of that lovely couple, Sharon Idrissi, who runs Morocco Immersion Tours & Adventures with her husband Abdou. We bonded over our love of French pastries and going off the beaten path when we travel. Below Sharon schools us all on how not to miss the magic of Morocco by believing all of the myths.



MYTHS ABOUT MOROCCO

BE: What's the one myth you'd like to bust about travel to Morocco?

Sharon: The biggest myth about Morocco is that it's a scary, scary place. I frequently get the question: Is it safe? Why yes...yes, it is. Sure, you need to be aware of your surroundings and careful of pickpockets - especially in the cities - but that's true of just about anywhere.

The first time I went to Morocco I went with one of my old college friends. We had decided to go there mostly on a whim and neither one of us knew anything about the country accept for the basics like where it was and that it was a primarily Muslim country. The Muslim part didn't bother us. My friend's husband is Muslim and one of my good friends is also. We knew that the stereotype of Islam was just that. But as two women traveling by ourselves, we had a little anxiety about our safety; however our biggest concern was regarding how to dress. Did we need to cover our hair? What type of clothes should we wear? Could we wear jeans? Capris? Shorts? We wanted to be respectful of the country and we didn't want to draw a whole lot of attention to ourselves. The more we read online, the more confused we got and we didn't know any Moroccans to ask.


WHAT TO WEAR (and what to shop for)

BE: So what should "Wear I Went" readers pack if they're planning to travel to Morocco? 

Sharon: Moroccans love bright colors, especially pinks and blues. There are no real restrictions, especially in the cities. You'll see Moroccan women dressed traditionally, but you'll also see them wearing the latest western styles.

If you want to avoid a lot of attention, you should probably stay away from short shorts and skirts. Maxi skirts and dresses are great because they are cool and comfortable. I love to wear lightweight tunic-type shirts with long or three quarter sleeves. Outside of the cities this look not only shows respect to the local culture, but protects my skin from the strong Moroccan sun.

BE: Are there any creature comforts that are difficult to get in Morocco that travelers might want to pack?

Sharon: You can get most anything you need in Morocco, but there are two things I always bring: hand-sanitizer and lip balm.

You do find more liquid soap in bathrooms now, but it's not traditional and there are still plenty of public restrooms that just provide a bar of soap or in some cases, no soap at all so hand-sanitizer is nice to have. 

And as soon as I land, I start applying lip balm; otherwise, in the arid and often windy climate, my lips get chapped in no time flat.

BE: And don't forget a little room for souvenirs right? Do people try to stuff handmade rugs in their luggage? 

Sharon: We always joke that every time we come back from the states, we bring a little of Morocco with us. Souvenirs are surprisingly easy to bring home. We've brought several rugs and these are surprisingly easy to bring home, as they roll up pretty tightly. 

Many people attempt to bring back tagines - a special clay cooking pan with a cone-like lid - although they rarely make it home in one piece. (Sharon says the trick is to put the lid in your carry-on and the base in your checked luggage.)

The pottery in Morocco is beautiful, but can be difficult to bring back, like with the tagine. The good news is that the mosaic houses in the cities (particularly Fes) will ship your purchases to you. It often takes a while for them to arrive, but when the well-packed wooden crates arrive, you get to relive your Moroccan experience all over again! 

Oh and leather bags - handbags, duffel bags etc. I have a little problem with handbags and my wonderful husband enables my habit.

BE: I've heard Morocco has a lot of natural resources. What type of natural souvenirs do you bring back with you?

Sharon: We always bring back spices (Sharon says, the dried stuff is ok to bring through customs) a bunch of rose cream and the occasional bottle of argan oil. 

[Editor's Note: The region is known for both natural ingredients and Morocco Immersion Tours & Adventures even offers a special Rose Festival tour during the height of the annual harvest season.]




DON'T BE THAT TRAVELER

BE: It seems that two people can visit the same places in Morocco and have such different experiences. Are there levels to travel in Morocco? What do most Americans miss when they visit the country?

Sharon: Some time ago, a friend of a friend went on a luxury trip to Morocco - provided by his employers. I always get excited when someone I know goes to Morocco, so I'll admit it...I Facebook stalked the couple's trip. But with every post, I felt a little sadder for them.

They stayed at a beautiful luxury hotel in Marrakech, but it was some distance from the Medina (the walled part of the city) and was a chain hotel you can find anywhere in the world. Then they announced that they were going to the Sahara to do a camel trek and I got excited again. There were a few pictures from the drive over the High Atlas Mountains and I thought to myself, "Yes! They are finally SEEING Morocco." But when they posted pictures of the desert camp, they hadn't gone to one of the two big sand seas where you are surrounded by dunes so big a camel is the only way to get to the camp. Instead they had gone to a place much closer that has a little bit of sand. There is nothing wrong with going there, not everyone has time to venture all the way out to the big dunes. What made me sad was they thought they WERE in the large dune area. I remember showing my husband the photos and he said he knew the camp and it was run by an expat, not a Moroccan. 

The final set of Morocco pictures were posted upon their return home with all of the "Moroccan" things they had purchased. One picture proudly displayed their new "Moroccan" rug and I cringed. They hadn't gotten one of the beautiful hand-knotted rugs that are so a part of the Moroccan-Berber culture. Nope, they had bought a machine made Turkish rug instead.

Morocco is like one of the streets in the medina with intricately wood carved doors. It is beautiful and you feel lucky to be appreciating that beauty, but then someone comes along with a key to one of those doors and invites you to enter and suddenly a whole new world has been opened for you.

Americans tend to either travel independently or on big bus tours. Both of those options will let you see the beauty of the country - but like the wood carved doors, your access will be pretty superficial. With the right key though, you can gain entry to the Morocco beneath the tourist attractions and you'll find that the real beauty of Morocco is more than just the breathtaking landscapes - the real beauty of Morocco is the rich and colorful culture of the people who have lived there for thousands of years.

BE: I've heard hotels in Morocco are called riads. What is the origin of these type of buildings?

Sharon: Riads are traditional houses found in the medina of the cities. The rooms in these houses are set around a central courtyard area and to be truly classified as a riad, there must be a water feature and vegetation. Historically, the courtyards helped to keep the houses cool and provide a private place for women to enjoy the outdoors.

During the days of the old salt caravans, the larger riads, known as Foundoks, included a store on the first level and the courtyards were used for the animals (particularly camels). So the water feature and vegetation were used to feed and water the livestock.

Many of these traditional houses have been converted to guest homes, which are small and intimate - not to mention beautiful and welcoming.

BE: What type of traveler is your favorite to lead on a tour?

Sharon: My favorite travelers are ones that are open to learning about and experiencing the local culture. Even the most modest guest house in Morocco will ply their guests with delicious home-cooked food and go beyond the call of duty to make sure that their guests are well looked after, comfortable and made to feel welcome. That is the hallmark of Moroccan hospitality.

Sharon Idrissi runs Morocco Immersion Tours & Adventures with her husband Abdou

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