As the semester comes back into swing, everyone is busying themselves with assignments and generally getting back into the grind leading up to the end of another school year. This year, I’m lucky enough to have several weeks before classes start up again on the 19th of February here in Lausanne, so I figured what better way to spend the free time than travelling? This thought brought myself and a friend down to the magical (and somewhat mysterious) country of Morocco. It’s pretty seldom that we hear from this North African nation, but I can assure you it’s a place I’ll never forget.
Our first stop was in Marrakesh, also known as the Red City. From the moment we drove in, we were overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle that was almost suffocating, but in an oddly exciting way. As we navigated our way through the old town (known as the “medina”), the sights and sounds of scooters zipping past, ever-so-persistent merchants haggling, and street musicians setting the Moroccan mood were thrilling. Not having eaten all day, what was even more thrilling to me were the smells from the bounty of street food available. Brochettes, couscous, and the hallmark of Moroccan cuisine, tajine, were all plentiful and greeted our olfactory senses with scents of aromatic cinnamon, black pepper, and cumin. When we finally did get a chance to indulge, however, we were somewhat disappointed to find that it wasn’t quite as good as we had imagined.
This theme continued throughout the first half of our journey in Morocco, during which we trekked through the Sahara Desert, staying one night in tents in a valley between two dunes, eventually making our way up to Fes—all with a company that specialises in desert tours. With this company, we would often stop for lunches at what seemed to be pretty standard restaurants. We switched drivers on the third day of our excursion and for whatever reason, the driver skipped the normal lunch spot on the way to Fes from Merzouga. We subsequently found ourselves in a very small town at a “public restaurant”, as the driver called it. The experience here was immediately different from other places we had eaten in Morocco, with a full half of a cow as well as a skinned lamb hanging outside the restaurant, accompanied by a flaming grill and a table of assorted tajines (pictured). After ordering outside, we went and sat down in the restaurant and quickly realised that we were probably the first tourists to have eaten at the establishment. We were surrounded by local Moroccans, families, couples, and handball fans with eyes glued to the television positioned above a small wood burning stove, which was heating the room. Soon enough, our food came in through the front door, and instantly my opinion of Moroccan cuisine was flipped on its head. The smells we had been enticed by in Marrakesh were finally united with the incredible flavour flowing from every roasted potato, chili, eggplant, locally grown olive, and every bit of fall-off-the-bone lamb gracing our taste buds.
What we realised was that it was more than coincidence that the best food we had eaten was found at the restaurant where the locals ate. From there on, we committed to avoiding the white-washed tourist restaurants and only spent our dirhams at the local gems — which were always a quarter of the price, mind you. What we took away from this experience is that it’s crucial to be able to differentiate the ‘tourist experience’ from the actual culture of the country you are visiting. Had our driver not skipped the typical lunch stop, we would have left Morocco unimpressed with their incredible cuisine. Given that tourist restaurants are usually designed with tourists’ comfort in mind, we came to the realisation that it is only when you leave that comfort zone that you can truly start to grow and gain the experience that travelling is intended to give you. I realise that this is only food, but just sitting in that restaurant and being able to get some taste of how Moroccans live, even for the relatively short duration of a meal, was by far my favourite part of the trip. If any of you have intentions to travel, I strongly encourage you to do the same: to eat, travel, and live authentically — it really does make all the difference!