Morocco

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In January I finally hit the zone with my fitness regime which felt really good. What doesn’t feel good is the daily brain strain of working out what I need to pack for pilates or swimming or running. Add into the mix nights spent sleeping at Nick’s, spanish class, my work mac, my personal laptop and I am starting to resemble Where’s Wally or Buckaroo; laden with bags and bits and bobs hanging off every limb. So it’s probably no surprise that my (very uncool) Quicksilver backpack that I have had since my GCSE year finally sprung some holes and broke, sick of being zip-strainingly crammed full. I don’t know why I haven’t thought about buying a new rucksack  (do you call it a rucksack or a backpack? Is there an official definition for the difference?) sooner considering this one was never very comfortable and wildly out of fashion, but now I had the opportunity to embark in a new one I didn’t take it lightly.

My main issue with most rucksacks is the way the straps meet in-between your shoulder blades. This puts such a strain on your neck and shoulders, they also give the bag a narrow top which means my beast-macbook barely crams in and the zip won’t shut, which in London is basically a pickpocket open invite. So I decided what I really needed was a rectangle shaped bag with wide straps in a nice colour that goes with everything. Then I saw a girl wearing a Kanken and it ticked every box and the rest is history.

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Where to start with WHY I love my bag so much? Firstly it fits everything my heart desires in easily. It’s laptop-shaped-shape means books, folders and my mac happily stack in, then I can pad the rest out with gym kit and trainers and it doesn’t look cumbersome and bulky. It has three strap combinations so you can carry it by hand rather than shoulder if you want. It’s waterproof. It makes even the heaviest load feel as light as a feather because the straps are properly positioned to even the weight. Oh and of course, it has a cute winky fox on it… everywhere on it.

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I know these bags are quickly being identified as the ultimate hipster item and as if to prove this point I walked to the tube today behind three hipster boys all with a different shade of Kanken on (and rolled up jeans and too-high bobble hats) but don’t let the fadness of it put you off. Hipsters get sore backs too. Although I did have a colleague point out the other night that my bag collection next to my desk was a hipster handbag haven: Kanken – check! Obscure brewery bar tote – check! School satchel – check! Ruh roh.

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You can find Kanken’s at ilovemykanken, and mine is a classic. I was worried classic would be too small, as they do a larger ‘laptop’ and ‘maxi’ option, but it’s perfect. It’s so dreamy in fact that I am really tempted to pick up a peach-pink one too. Can I really go from one prehistoric rucksack, to two shiny new ones? Is this what being a full-time working professional grown-up is all about?! It’s sort of like the Superga of the bag world, once you have one you become obsessed with the million other colour-ways available. Here is my Kanken getting to see the word at large and accompanying me on a trek in Morocco. It still proudly carries some Sahara sand dust strains now it’s back to the confines of my commute and gym locker.

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This isn’t a sponsored post by the way, I just really love this addition to my life and want to share the happy-back wealth.

What else am I happy about? I’m foaming at the mouth over the fact that my favourite band The National have a new album out in May AND a documentary. It’s like they know it’s my birthday..! Unfortunately though they haven’t released a single UK tour date and that makes me UNhappy. Despite adoring them for most of my adult life I have never seen them live. I have had tickets to see them live THREE times too, and various transport/life meltdown/illness has prevents me getting to be in the crowd. I would travel to anywhere in the UK to see them, so I just really hope they sneak one show in somewhere. It’s got  to a point where I would probably have to go see them alone and wear no mascara, because their music has been such an emotional crutch for me that seeing it live would just turn me into a mess, especially now I’ve waited so long.

To soften the blow, I got tickets for Nick & I to go to Planetarium at the BAM in New York. He’s coming to visit for the last weekend of my work-trip and to escort me home (although we are on the same flight home and I’m in Business, he’s in Economy!) What a Saturday night NY adventure! It’s a performance by Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner (of The National) with a full orchestra journeying through every planet in the solar system through music and visuals and I think it will be pretty nifty.

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Woah nelly!

(Have you read part i? If not click here, or this won’t make much sense. All stories need a beginning after all.)

On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking. I also saw my first EVER camel. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable to it’s previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so it’s fair to judge it bearing in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.

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We spent alot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a totally dry country = no booze for sale! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says God, Country, King lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.

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Our big adventure day saw us drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey and waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could have a perfect day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, the sahara sands and a small fishing village where homes were carved caves into the sand cliffs. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. Our guide suddenly whooped for joy, and a V of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and I even managed to get photograph that shows their amazing baldheads. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.

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As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park T! We took mint tea with his brother in his beautiful painted cave house. The language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May, with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Another near-death scrape but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.

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Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rudded plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils and our new guide Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)

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From Tiznet we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam. As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.

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So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked our efforts to take on the sea.

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I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that worldclass surfers long to surf on!

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So that’s the end of my first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of my heart, and I am desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.

If you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into a travel blogging version of me, then don’t worry, my feet are barely on the ground because in two weeks time I’ll be in Los Angeles and New York for work so expect a bit more of the same.

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Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.

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This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.

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We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every day we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.

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Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ole packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of the Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)

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In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.

Our first test came on day 2, when we spent the day hiking in the High Atlas with our guide Ahmed, who lived in the local village. It was a blisteringly hot day, and in Morocco as a female you need to be covered elbow>knee when out and about in rural areas, to respect the religious beliefs of those you’ll come into contact with. Add to this the fact that Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace. We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! The hike was exactly what I needed to fully de-Londonify myself. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunk. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.

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Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, really witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.

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We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.

Part ii coming soon (hopefully tomorrow if I get a wriggle on and keep eating these fizzy strawberry straws that are powering me with E numbers!); including spotting the endangered bald ibis, my first time surfing, Agadir being a bit crummy and scaling a sandy cliff face of doom.

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