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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
I didn’t start out as an advocate of ‘van-life’. I thought it was going to be a sacrifice: a means to an end; something to endure to be able to travel. I was dreading the confinement of three of us in a small space and the lack of a decent shower or bath. But the longer we spend on the road, and the more we switch from van to house and back to van, the more I appreciate van-life rather than house-dwelling.
Since we have been on the road we tend to travel for a month or so, then stay put for a few weeks. We often stay on campsite but sometimes we rent a holiday-let if we can find one for a good price. We have rented a studio in the Basque Country, a little one-bed holiday flat in Armacao de Pera in the Algarve and a two-bed flat with garden in Los Caños de Meca in Andalucia. We rent a house or flat for a number of reasons: so we can settle and get to know a local area and community there a bit more intimately, to stretch out a bit and sleep in a longer bed (our camper bed is only 5ft 8 inches long), so our toddler can run around in a contained area (our camper is ten square metres in TOTAL) and so we can download films and books on the internet.
And for these things, living in a house is great. But we have found house-dwelling makes us lazy.
We find we very quickly switch between the different ways of living. In a house we fall into:
– constantly doing laundry, even if it’s not really dirty we just wash it anyway
– Leaving the washing up to pile up
– Not tidying up: there’s plenty of space not to
– Staying inside even if it’s quite nice out
– Watching TV and surfing the net excessively, including our toddler
– Going to bed too late
Whereas with van-life we tend to:
-do laundry once a fortnight when we find a campsite with a machine
-Wash up everything after each meal and put it all away- there is nowhere to put dirty dishes down and not enough space to carry spares
– put everything away after its use. Everything -toys, books, clothes, food -has its place. The space becomes claustrophobic if it’s untidy
– Go outside to stretch out to explore at least twice a day if not more
– Never watch TV: we don’t have one
– Surf the net only when we can access WiFi and go to bed much earlier
– Our son goes on his screen much less: maybe less than an hour a day
There is something that feels more wholesome and satisfying about this way of life, on a basic level.
Van-life amplifies our experience of the weather, which we feel connects us with the natural environment more. We are much more aware of the weather and move with it rather than stay indoors and ignore it. Of course a lot of rain is challenging with a toddler who wants to go outside but generally the weather even within one day is more of a mixed bag. Because the van is a small space we go out much more regularly to stretch out. Even if it’s cold we just wrap up. We watch the clouds and the forecast and plan our day around it. And while it can get difficult and claustrophobic if our son is cooped up in the van too long, he’s much happier and therefore more manageable inside when he is going outside most of the day. We find we are much more in-tune with the dawn and dusk also. While we do have electric lights we feel the sunrise and sunset more acutely. We get up with the sunrise in the morning and currently the sun sets at 7, and our son goes to bed in his bunk not long after. We watch one of our downloaded films, read or do some research on the net for a bit, but soon follow, as the temperature drops and the bed at the other end of the bus looks more and more inviting. We find there is no space or inclination for slobbing around half-watching-TV-whilst-inanely-scrolling-Facebook, as we tend to in a house.
The van also amplifies our experience of daily survival tasks such as parenting, cooking and cleaning. While we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying when we are on the road, there is a sense of achievement as it feels like the tasks are productive: a focus rather than a distraction from something else that’s got to be done (see my blog post about ‘work’).
Perhaps there is also something about travelling, rather than being stationary where there is always something new- people, scenery, customs- that keeps us active, and makes it impossible to laze about.
I just re-read this post and I can see people reading it thinking, ‘get a job, then house-dwelling does not make you lazy.’ I guess what I am saying is house-dwelling makes us comfortable. But there is a danger in this comfort, in that you can become lazy and passive. Whether doing paid work or not. What I appreciate about van-life is being out of that comfort zone which feels more connected and more free.