Ten things to value about Morocco

View across the river, Ait Benhaddou

Last year we spent nearly three months in Morocco, on a road trip in our Mercedes 609 camper. My partner and I, and our two year old son, traveled to some of the most remote towns and villages (see our travel map for where we’ve been), met some of the warmest, most welcoming people and saw some of the most stunning scenery we have seen in our life. I began to feel quite settled and accustomed to the way of life in this ‘developing world,’ North African, Muslim country.

Of course, there were some things we missed from the UK (high quality plumbing and drainage being one key thing).  And of course, this is another one of those glib checklists which doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Moroccan life.  A main proviso is: I recognise Morocco is a huge and diverse country and we didn’t visit many ‘modern’ cities, so really I am writing about rural Morocco. Nevertheless here are ten things, in no particular order, I celebrate from our time there.

A convenience store in Merzouga, Sahara

1. Supermarkets are rare.

I do not just mean huge hypermarkets, I mean small supermarkets as well. Outside of the modern cities there were neither. We became accustomed to seeking out ‘market day’ where we would buy all our fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs for the week, occasionally fish at the fish market if we were near the coast, or meat at the butchers. Other goods we needed we bought at local grocery stores, hardware stores and so on, as and when we needed them. This way of shopping is not as convenient as the big-once-a-week-supermarket-shop we have been used to. Indeed when we saw a supermarket it would ignite a kind of ‘guilty pleasures’ excitement in us. However, we reflected on how supermarkets really distance you from the produce you are buying and the processes that got it there. We came to  value shopping locally, and this had other environmental benefits which I go on to detail.

Dry goods sold self service in a supermarket

2. Packaging was minimal and hence packaging waste was minimal.

As supermarkets were few and far between, packing waste was much less ubiquitous. Having banned plastic bags way back in 2016, if you asked for a bag in Morocco it was paper, or made of recycled fibres. Fruit and veg bought in the market were never wrapped in plastic but bought loose, put in brown paper bags or you are expected to bring your own bag. Even eggs were sold with no packaging: you had to  bring your own egg box. Often if you bought rice, pasta or pulses from local stores they were stored in large containers and decanted. Even the supermarkets, when you found one, sold dry goods like this. As a consequence of being ‘poor’, in rural Morocco, ‘consumption’ was minimal, but therefore waste was minimal. ‘Poor’ rural Moroccans lived a life that did not involve buying ‘stuff’ every day. To generate waste you have to consume and discard. Moroccans we met did not consume pre-packaged fruit juices or fizzy drinks but drank tea, water or homemade fruit water. Food waste was minimal and would compost down to nothing. There was also more re-use. Any glass bottles sold were collected and returned for refilling.  When things broke in the home/ on the campsite they were fixed, not replaced with a new bit of plastic and the old lump of plastic discarded. Indeed, at the local market, stalls could be found selling secondhand necessities: tools, haberdashery, hardware, bricolage, clothes, toys and parts of toys that the West discards. Even toilet behaviour is more ecological, washing with water, minimising toilet tissue waste. As a tourist in this landscape I was painfully aware of my levels of consumption and the waste I generated. The packaging generated from a city supermarket shop; a new item of clothing or plastic toy; a cup of take-out coffee; a thousand wet wipes used for all sins (at that time we realised we had a ‘packet a day habit,’ that we have now gladly beaten); all added up to make a shameful pile in the bin. A bin that otherwise contained tea leaves and an old knob of bread, which, actually, a dog would eat anyway. For locals, municipal garbage collection appeared to be sparse anyway, so it was imperative to generate as a little waste as possible.  Tourists were the point at which waste became unmanageable. As we spent our time travelling and wild camping, we realised that campsites were essentially places we paid to take our waste.

Hiking with a guide in Dades gorge

3. Everyone is a parent: ‘the village raises the child’.

This African proverb was very much in force in Morocco. It took me a long time to relax and trust in the notion, but everywhere we went in Morocco my toddler was safe and looked after. Children were of central importance and this was obvious. As soon as he stepped in public, a young child would be the centre of everyone’s attention. Men, women and other children were hard-wired to notice a young child in public, consider his welfare, and collectively take responsibility for his safety. If our son was in danger of running into the traffic others would save him; if we were hiking and our energies were waning, someone would carry him; if he was misbehaved in someone’s shop or restaurant they would reprimand him; when he was climbing in the park the older children helped him; when he smiled everyone would praise him. I realised how much weight is taken off your shoulders if a community around you is parenting your child, rather than feeling like their daily upbringing is solely your responsibility.

Mercedes Varios on market day in Moulay Idriss, Morocco

4. Every other vehicle is a Mercedes Vario.

I’ve thrown this in because our campervan is a Mercedes Vario (an old 609d), and we are fans of these trusty German-built machines. The Vario is the work-horse of Morocco. It is used to transport goods for market day; it is everyone’s work van; it is used on farms; it is the public bus. In fact, it took us weeks to understand: why did everyone keep waving at us on the roadside? They thought we were a bus and were hailing us down.
Fetching water from the spring

5. Spring water is free, provided by pump at the roadside, in the town or village.

In the UK you find the occasional public water tap, but in rural Morocco fresh spring water was available free everywhere (as we have found in Greece and Turkey also). This is most likely because many people would not have piped water to their homes (and the piped water wouldn’t be drinking water anyway). Living in a van and needing access to water to fill our water tank, and to drink, made us hyper-aware of public access to water wherever we went. In some countries we found the only way to access water was to pay to stay on a campsite, or to ask at a petrol station. In some places in Europe the petrol stations removed their tap connections so people couldn’t access the water without permission. This made me think about how we arrived at this state of affairs where water is a private commodity and access to it is restricted? And how we just let this happen. Access to drinking water is a basic human right. We look at the woman fetching water from the pump in the village and label this ‘backward’ or underdeveloped. And of course, if you have to walk miles to the pump that is a real problem, and of course, if the water is contaminated, that is a problem, but there is nothing backward about a system where you collect water at the source. There is something quite backward about collecting water; storing it (where consequently it gets dirty); spending money and energy resources cleaning it in huge treatment works (to make it drinkable but basically stripping it of any health benefits); then piping it to every home, so that people can then defacate in it and then go to the supermarket and buy mineral water from a corporation that has essentially stolen the access to natural spring in the mountain nearby. We should have free access to local spring water at the source, and we should harvest rain water locally for washing and sanitation.
The view from our camper in the Rif mountains (no that’s not a painting)

6. Epic scenery.

The landscape of Morocco was absolutely, mind-blowingly stunning. As we traveled the country we saw every kind of landscape imaginable from the waterfalls of the Rif mountains in the north; to the snowy central Atlas mountains; Dades and Todgha gorges; the cliff formations and beaches of the west coast; the Sahara dessert of the south and east. Some landscapes  were truly otherworldly too (or only the stuff of movies) such as the Mars-like landscapes of Tissint and Tata; the dry desert ocean beds of Es Sfalat; the Precambian granite rocks of Tafraoute; the blue city Chefchaouen and the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. In fact, Ouarzazate is home to several film studios and many science fiction, fantasy, historical films and series are filmed here, including Star Wars, Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
Pates de Singes, Dades valley

7. Alcohol was available but not culturally ubiquitous.

In my circles, everyone I know wishes they drank less alcohol. But living in the UK, this is easier said than done, as alcohol is a part of the culture of socialising. When I lived and worked in London, ‘going for a drink’ peppered the working week, and dominated the weekend, as every other shop-front was a bar or pub in my gentrified London neighbourhood. Even with kids, ‘going for a drink’ was a likely occurrence, made possible by pubs with ‘beer gardens’, and even indoor playrooms. This didn’t feel particularly healthy, nor sustainable, physically or financially. In my circles there were strategies to reduce the amount of alcohol you consume, either drinking a soft drink in the pub while everyone else is ‘getting pissed’; or alternatively, not leaving the house. “I’m trying not to drink” was a common reason given for reclusivity. How weird is that? That you have to lock yourself away and avoid the company of friends in order to avoid the temptation of drinking too much alcohol or getting in debt? Another strategy involves moving to a Muslim country where socialising does not revolve around alcohol. In rural Morocco there were no pubs or bars just cafes and restaurants. You could buy alcohol in the big supermarkets in the big cities, and somewhere in rural areas if you asked around. Some campsites we stayed on served alcohol in the restaurant but it wasn’t offered to you, you had to ask for it. But “what do they do for a night out?” I hear you ask? People eat together, and just sit around for hours, just being in each other’s company. Cafes were a hub for communal meetings, and occupying elderly people who sat together watching the world go by. Cafes did not seem concerned with making a profit out of each sale. In Morocco there were no advertisements for this alco-pop or that cold beer; no irresistible ‘3 for 2’ special offers in the supermarket; no wine on the menu (“oh go on then, just the one”); no pub on every corner, the familiar smell of beer, the sound of chinking glasses and drunken laughter beckoning you in, stumbling out at closing time (“not again, 2am!?”). In Morocco I had the odd drink (like, I mean, maybe twice in three months).  It was a genuine treat, and the rest of the time alcohol was just not there, and not a part of our day.  At first I felt like something was missing (because it is so culturally ingrained), but I did not miss how alcohol is pushed on you in the UK.
Truck with hayload, Ait Benhaddou

8. Rules are made to be broken.

There is something quite freeing about Morocco in the sense that the enforcement of rules is fairly lax. Our particular experience of this- being on a road trip- related to traffic and the rules of the road. Yeah yeah, the UK has rules to keep us safe. But it is tedious isn’t it? In Morocco you can drive about without your seat belt on, you can hang off the bus; sit on the roof or sit on the back of a truck; you can park wherever; you can drive the wrong way up the motorway slip road; you can squeeze your whole family on a motorcycle; you can climb the ruins that say ‘closed’. You can make your own decision as to the danger. Ah, freedom. Yes, perhaps the roads are less safe, but there is something stifling and oppressive about the iron fist that governs UK traffic laws, and increasingly governs public space in general.
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech

9. Collective worship.

Morocco is a Muslim country and you are gently reminded of this five times a day when hearing the call to prayer from the mosque. Friday prayer- around lunchtime on Friday- is the weekly occasion to attend mosque and pray collectively. Lots of businesses and shops close on Friday lunchtime for this purpose. However, when we stayed on a campsite on the edge of a small town, Ounagha, just outside Essaouira, we had the most moving experience. Ounagha was a non-descript town that had grown up around a crossroads. The Mosque was placed at the cross roads and the market took place outside the mosque. Other than this was a small parade of shops, a garage, a school, and a campsite. We happened to be in the market in the town at the time of Friday prayer, and when the call sounded, everyone (ok, mostly men) slowly packed up what they were doing and started to walk towards the mosque. Shops shut their doors, market traders covered their wares with a cloth, cars stopped and people got out. The mosque was so full that around thirty people prayed on the floor outside.  I am not a religious person but there was something powerful, wholesome and connected about this collective worship and the way in which this collective-coming-together presided over everything else, not least commerce.
Snowy roadside rest stop, High Atlas Mountains

10. Inviting motorway services.

Roadside rest stops were often grand, involving far more than a fuel station, toilet and shop selling junk food, as we are used to in Europe. Perhaps harking back to the days of the caravan routes, Moroccan motorway services often included an extravagant (but usually empty) hotel with swimming pool; almost always a butcher; a restaurant with outdoor seating area and children’s park and invariably a palatial but empty ballroom with a few old men sitting in it drinking tea. Motorway services were not just places where you stopped on a journey, but a destination, especially at the weekend where every man and his family seemed to go to eat in the restaurant, play in the park or even dance in the ball room perhaps?

Fossil hunting in Es Sfalat

Finding value in Morocco.

Morocco is classed as a ‘developing’ country, but many of the things I write about on this list- many of the things we valued about Morocco- exist precisely because it was not ‘developed’ in the way that western-advanced-capitalist countries have developed. That is not to romanticise poverty. Many people in rural Morocco are poor and desperate. Everywhere we went, Moroccans we met admired Turkey and looked to Tayip Erdogan as a their role model. Turkey perhaps represents a dream, a hope, an idea of a modern, functioning, progressive Muslim way of life.  Whether Turkey really represents that is another blog post (or thesis), but one rhetorical question we can ask here is, do Moroccans need a version of western capitalist democracy? Do they need reality television; media jobs; supermarkets; divorce; secularism; malls; bottled water; shrink wrapped vegetables; fizzy drinks; pubs; drug problems; CCTV; outsourced childcare; old people’s homes; motorways; 5G; manicured lawns? No. They want their children to be safe, healthy, cared for by those around them, and have enough to eat. Let us try to imagine, what this could look like. Is there is a chance for Morocco, a hope: that there is potential to ‘develop’ in a more environmentally sustainable way, but also a way that is more sustainable in terms of community and sociality?
Looking for refuge in Amtdi

Interested to know more about Morocco now? 

You can do your own research but here is a start. Morocco is a North African Muslim majority country. Islam came to the region following the Arab ‘conquests’ around 670 AD. The Ottoman Empire governed parts of Morocco for several centuries, after which it was colonised by France (and Spain). The ‘country’ gained independence in 1956, and it is now a (dynastic) monarchy ruled by King Mohamed VI. Islam is the official religion of the state, with apparently 99% of the population adhering to the faith. The main languages are Arabic, French and Berber (who were more recently recognised as having indigenous cultural rights). Characterised by extensive rural ‘poverty’ (by objective and subjective standards), Morocco is now classified as a ‘lower middle income’ country by the World Bank (alongside countries like Tunisia, Pakistan, Vietnam), brought about by strong economic growth. However, such countries are embedded in global value chains, featuring  cheap labour, precarious work and polarising inequality. One of Morocco’s biggest industries is agriculture and it is a major exporter to the European Union (citrus fruits, vegetables and fish), but the sustainability of this industry is under threat by climate change. A lesser known contender in the Arab Spring, the Moroccan government ‘successfully’ quashed ‘pro-democracy’ protests in 2011 with police violence, media black outs and empty promises of reform. With youth voter turn out at 10% in the 2016 elections, Moroccan youth appear to remain dissatisfied, disillusioned, searching.

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All photographs are our own. And while I wrote this article, I am always in debt to the wonderful insights of my partner, Kagan.

Croatia, Tuna ‘ranching’ and the state of our oceans

A 10 minute read. Just read it. Its important.

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This summer we travelled the Mediterranean coast in our campervan, from Italy through to Turkey. We spent three weeks driving through the pristine resorts of the Croatian coast, island-hopping some of the many beautiful, ‘unspoilt’ islands (as much as you can ‘hop’ in a 6 tonne beast of a vehicle). We spent a long weekend camping on the stunning, 45km-long remote island of Dugi Otok, which took two hours to reach by ferry. First, we visited a campsite situated in the pine forest at one tip of the island, where our son played in the calm shallow waters and rock pools and daytrippers crowded the beach until 3pm before it became ‘ours’ again.

img_4498We then explored the island to find some remote spots to camp. The island had one main road that stretched the whole length of the island like a spine, where you could see down to the coast to the east and to the west. Smaller roads led off to a handful of fishing (yachting/holidaying) villages dotted along the coast, and some tracks went to private dwellings or secret beaches. Google Earth helped us find the latter, where a dirt road ran down a steep hill to a clearing in the trees which led to a stretch of pebble beach overlooking a small uninhabited island. Apart from sharing with a few ‘regulars’ who frequented the beach, we had the place to ourselves: we felt like Robinson Crusoe. We relaxed in the makeshift driftwood structures left by prior holiday-makers and swam in the warm crystal clear waters, slightly disappointed that we never saw any sea life: no fish, no crustaceans, no jelly fish, no seaweed, even.

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On the last day we were driving the main road to the opposite end of the island, when to the east we spotted what looked like a series of circular pens lined with floats, being pulled slowly by small boats. My partner excitedly and optimistically said ‘I think I know what that is: I read about this guy who has designed a machine that scours the surface of the ocean cleaning up the plastic waste. I think it’s that’. Indeed oceancleanup.com tells you all about this excellent project funded by crowd-sourcing. But I read it only starts trials in the Pacific in 2018, not in the Mediterranean. I continued to research what these ocean structures might be and then I found it: it was most likely a tuna ‘ranch.’ According to Greenpeace, in such outfits, young wild tuna are caught and put into cages, which are moved around the Med, while the tuna are fattened-up, fed on other wild-caught fish. Not only is this quite depressing on an animal-rights basis, it’s also unsustainable as apparently it takes up to 20 kilograms of bait to produce just one kilogram of tuna. The bait is made from other fish species, predominantly caught elsewhere. Moreover, the bait brought from elsewhere can introduce disease[1]; and fish farming often uses large amounts of chemicals, damaging the ecosystem.

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While some ‘aquaculture’ farms claim to be responsible and sustainable, the tuna ranched here off Croatia is said to be Blue Fin, hailed by Greenpeace as endangered.  Such ranches are thought to be responsible for the depleted stocks of Blue Fin, caught where it is spawned, off the coast of Lybia. First started in Croatia in 1997 there are now said to be 69 tuna ranching operations in the Med with over 1700 flotillas, with Malta now growing a substantial industry.

Blue Fin ranching here, is a multi-billion pound business enabled by lax regulation, corrupt governments, bent and greedy fishing corporations headed by tuna ‘barons’ and a predominantly Japanese market (consuming 80% of the worlds supply). According to a seven-month inquiry into tuna ranching by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), fishermen, ranchers, and traders have engaged in widespread fraud and negligence (involving off the books sales and under-reporting catches). Since 2008, under pressure from environmentalists and scientists, Japanese officials made their first big refusal of Blue Fin imports, citing dubious paperwork by suppliers. It is unclear how this is impacting on the scale of these ranches today. A 2017 article in the Croatia Times celebrates the ‘abundance’ of delicious tuna coming from the Adriatic seas around Croatia, with no mention of tuna ranches, leaving the reader to believe that there is natural abundance. In fact, ‘aquaculture’ or fish farms now produce nearly half of the total of fish for human consumption, but the environmental degradation caused (vs. the high energy consumption of offshore farms) means we cannot tell ourselves that any aquaculture is sustainable.

I then began to research the Mediterranean Sea further, trying to reconcile our experience of a picturesque beach holiday with what I know about pollution and over-fishing. I found that the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most polluted oceans of the world (only third to the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic). According to the United Nations Environment Program, there is 650 million tons of sewage and a combined 230,000 tons of mineral oil, mercury, lead and phosphates dumped into the Mediterranean Sea each year.  One third of the world’s shipping passes through the Mediterranean and between them, ships discharge between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes of crude oil each year. Coastal discharges from industry and cities also result in high concentrations of mercury, cadmium, zinc, lead and untreated sewage. In 2007, a litre of Mediterranean seawater contained 10g of petrochemicals.

That is before we even talk about plastic.  According to the WWF, the Atlantic and Pacific ‘garbage patches’ receive the most attention, but scientists claim the Mediterranean is the region most threatened by plastic pollution, partly because it is semi-enclosed, it acts as a trap for plastics. Tourists are thought to be responsible for annual spikes of 40% in plastic pollution in the Med each summer. In 2015 a clean up project began across some of the Mediterranean countries which involves volunteers picking up plastic waste on the beaches (that which hasn’t already been consumed by sea life and sea birds). However, the campaign itself recognised that the level of plastic waste in the Med is beyond critical. The website claims that in certain places the volume of micro-plastic in the water exceeds that of plankton

Now we are in Istanbul in Turkey my son and I walk along the Bosphorus, enjoying spotting the shoals of fish in the shallow waters.  Fishing season has begun and everyday, since the first of September, I have watched the barrage of purse-seine vessels with huge circular nets sitting in the Bosphorus channel, day and night, radar technology hunting down Palamut (Skipjack tuna). My father-in-law used to fish here with his small fishing boat and sell his catch in the market. There used to be a huge variety of fish here, big and small, but since the 1970s he said the larger purse-seine vessels have increased in number and now there are only really Palamut left, even those, it is suspected, are being caught too young [i]. Currently no purse-seine fishing operation is rated as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

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Last week the WWF launched its bi-annual report Living Planet, its most heartbreaking claim being that in the last 50 years we have seen an overall decline of 60% in global population sizes of vertebrate species. The level and speed of this holocaust is truly shameful. Moreover, I am gravely reminded of the scientific prediction of the collapse of every species of wild-caught seafood by 2050, if current trends continue, and serious intervention is not taken into the clean up and protection of our oceans.  At first watching the fishing on the Bosphorous Straight felt quaint, but now I am kept awake at night by the constant drone of the ship’s motors, and this unfolding horror story.

It is blinkered, foolish even to travel this beautiful planet and not to be cognizant of the abuse we have inflicted, and continue to inflict. We don’t need sci-fi and zombie horror to dream up an imaginary dystopia, we are already there. We are already dead.


But what can I do?

Industry is way out of control, but the very least we can do is:

  1. Don’t buy fish.
  2. Don’t eat it. Unless you caught it yourself with a fishing rod.
  3. Support Greenpeace’s campaign for ocean sanctuaries
  4. Join direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Enough is enough.
  5. Don’t buy single use plastic. Ever. If you can help it.
  6. Take direct action against plastic packaging
  7. Donate to the Ocean Clean-up

Footnotes

[i] Apparently the European tuna farming industry buys more than 200,000 tons of mostly frozen and untreated fish annually from the North Atlantic, West Africa and South America. From http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat53/sub340/item2188.html accessed 5th Nov 2018, written in 2008 (updated 2012) by Jeffrey Hays, derived from newspaper sources.

[ii] I found a Turkish project to monitor Palamut fishing in the Bosphorus 2012-15: Palamutlar Nerede? But the website palamutlarnerede.org is no longer. The only reference to it I can find now is on their sponsor’s page, only written in Turkish: https://www.metro-tr.com/deger-yaratan-projeler/palamutlar-nerede. Maybe you can help me with more information about the outcome of this project, or similar endeavours?

All photographs are the author’s own.