Coming home is bittersweet. Sleeping in my own bed, drinking water out of the tap, cats cuddling, – these things that I take for granted become what I long for when I’m in a foreign place. But once the reality of being home sinks in, the food, people, and places that were right at my doorstep quickly dissolve into memories and photographs as I am thrown back into my “real” life and I wish I could close my eyes and be back there.
Getting out of one’s comfort zone can be terrifying or exhilarating. Or both. I’ve wanted to go to Morocco for a very long time. I’d read about the architecture, art, and culture there, and knew that it would be significantly different from other places I’ve traveled. I hoped that one day I’d visit but was intimidated by the cultural crevasse that I would have to navigate. I even put it on my vision board not knowing that things would change so drastically in my life and somehow open a way for me to go. Thankfully a stencil and surface artisan by the name of Melanie Royals, who owns a riad and retreat company – Maison 28, whom I know through her stencil company Royal Design Studio – organizes trips for people like me. Melanie had been taking artisans to Marrakech for about 10 years before purchasing and renovating her own riad. Myself along with 8 other artists signed up for the retreat. I knew about half of the ladies and the others quickly became friends. Melanie curated a wonderful 10 day tour of Marrakech and its many facets. Some of our activities included painting, shopping, camel riding, site seeing, cooking, teaching, and eating. Lots of eating.
Since I’ve been home my friends have asked me what my favorite part was and its such a hard question to answer. I was mesmerized by the maze of the Medina and how the people that live there still carry on cultural traditions hundreds of years old, like taking their home made bread dough to the local bakery where it is baked for them in old wood fired ovens. I’m amazed at how whole families can ride a scooter while navigating the narrow streets filled with buses, donkeys, cars, and bicycles squeezing by one another with barely an inch to spare. Or perhaps its the culture of humbleness, living side by side, young and old, conservative and liberal, all in chaotic harmony, much like the pattern upon pattern and color upon color.
Upon our arrival we were given a tour of the Medina where we visited palaces, souks, and a pharmacy. We learned about the succession of rulers, native Berbers, and daily Marrakechian life. Of course the shopping goes without saying. The souks were such an experience. Colorful, vibrant, bustling. I loved seeing the people making their wares, from blacksmiths to cobblers. Even a man carving wood on a lathe spun with his foot!
We took a day trip to visit the coastal town of Essouira, an ancient port at one time controlled by the Portuguese, where the first slaves were brought, bound for the Americas . I learned later that this is the birthplace of the North African music called Gnawa. A camel ride at sunset on the beach was simply magical.
A visit to the Yves Saint Laurent museum brought up emotions I wasn’t expecting. The exhibit detailed YSL’s life and career, showcasing his works but also his sketches and fabric swatches from collections. Seeing these reminded me of how my mom loved designing and sewing and made me wish she could have seen this, and Morocco, with me. (Sorry, no pictures of the museum allowed, but some of the Majorelle Gardens!)
The one day that I wasn’t too sure about turned out to be unforgettable. Melanie has a relationship with a women’s educational center called the Amal Center. They provide training and support for women who have come from difficult situations. In the morning they taught us how to cook the traditional tajine and in the afternoon we taught the trainees how to stencil. The language barrier was of little significance and we were able to convey our thoughts through gestures, smiles, and a few Arabic words we learned like “shweea” which means “little.”
At the end of the trip we had a free day so we made reservations for high tea at the Royal Mansour hotel. My friend Cathy had seen a documentary by the BBC about it and decided we had to go. And I am so glad I did. It was the perfect marriage of traditional Moroccan architecture with modern European aesthetics.
It absolutely was a trip of a lifetime and I am so grateful that I was able to experience such a beautiful place. I think the best thing about the trip was the people. From our host Melanie who curated an incredible experience; the fellow artists on the retreat who shared a love of color, pattern, and culture; Zuber, Melanie’s right hand man, who even got me medication when I came down with a cold, our drivers, effortlessly navigating the crazy traffic, the souk owners who so theatrically did the negotiation dance with us; the Medina guide – Abdel Wahad; the camel ranch and owner, who treats his animals with love and care, to the locals- that’s what made it truly amazing.
Our last night we enjoyed the traditional music of a Gnawa band and some of us (no names ;)) really had fun. If you have ever been you certainly know what I am talking about, and if you are thinking of going, do it! You will not regret a second.
And if you’d like to see some videos and more photos, follow me on instagram. Shukran!