It’s exactly four years to the day since my very first excursion to Morocco, which was also my first trek abroad as a mother and my first time travelling beyond the borders of Europe.
Ten trips later, I now have my share of embodied experience about travelling with children in Morocco to convert into well-meaning advice.
For those considering or looking forward to a family holiday in Morocco, I hope the following will help you to prepare in a way that travel sales sites might not – it is not intended to put you off (and I’m not trying to sell you travel insurance either!).
1) That’s Entertainment
Morocco is extremely family-friendly, yet not in the way we’re now conditioned to consider the term ‘family-friendly’ in the UK.
Children revolve around day to day community life there (sometimes even going to work with their mothers rather than being put into childcare), but life does not revolve around children. You will not find restaurants with children’s menus and play areas or themed parks and farms designed with children in mind.
Children are allowed into the domain of adults in a way we’ve divorced them from in our own society, yet the domain of children – which has largely been developed for commercial purposes in places such as the UK and US – is not taken for granted in Morocco.
Generally, most Moroccan people seem accepting of kids being kids. However, I have always been well aware that I’m often the only woman sat in the cafés – ergo, the only person with kids in tow (the gender division is stark here, with women unquestionably being those who stay with the children whilst their menfolk sit in the cafes with their cigarettes and espressos).
Thus, in the cafés, the children have often been expected to sit like mini-adults. The café culture in Morocco can be very appealing, but this obviously comes with the same issues as sitting in restaurants and cafés with kids in the UK.
Sometimes a street café will be next to a wide pavement or large square where, if you sit outside, the kids can have a bit of a run-around, often mixing in with the local youngsters who may be playing football or gathered at the roadside socialising.
Yet this can’t always be relied upon, and providing entertainment for them becomes a priority. FreeToBeP’s preferences of things to do are suitably compact for our outings – playing games such as Minecraft or Angry Birds on my smartphone, or taking out his pencil case full of random Lego pieces to create with.
You can find lots of lovely souvenirs that make do as affordable objects of interest. A lot of the toys found here are really cheap, plastic tat that are a waste of money and a waste in general. A lot of rubbish here ends up strewn across the streets rather than being dealt with properly (quite apart from any recycling), and I have no desire to add to the mess by adding a pile of broken, plastic toys at the end of my stays.
Thus, it’s really useful to bring a small supply of good quality, inspiring toys such as Lego to keep the kids happy.
You could also set up little games using coins or other ‘somethings’ you might carry in your day bag. During our latest trip to Morocco, FreeToBeZ ended up with a stash of low value money we’d collected – some British coppers, some Moroccan half dirham and one dirham coins, as well as 5 Euro cents we found on the plane. These kept her well amused for a good portion of time and she was very possessive of it (I lost count of the times she wandered our apartment asking “Where’s my money?!” over the ten days we were out there!).
2) Cats & Dogs
There are many stray and feral animals in the streets of Morocco, including some very cute kittens. Understandably, the kids love to chase them around and stroke them – yet this is best avoided if you have young children who may not be aware of and understand the associated dangers.
The street cats and dogs in Morocco may well be infected with rabies, with 90% of human cases of the disease in the country caused by dog bites and most of the victims being children. At night, the stray dogs roam the streets in packs and can be quite an intimidating sight for those who are not used to seeing groups of strays congregating together.
FreeToBeP suffered a minor cat scratch on our very first trip out there not long before his 3rd birthday. I was unaware of the rabies risk at the time and thinking back to it makes me feel physically sick. The general advice is that you must seek medical attention within 24 hours of exposure to a potentially rabid animal to avoid going down with this (almost always) fatal virus.
Whilst there is a pre-exposure vaccine for rabies which travellers can pay for (it isn’t available on the NHS for a trip to Morocco), this just buys you a bit of time in case you do get bitten or scratched – and in an emergency situation in Morocco you’re unlikely to be over 24 hours away from the nearest clinic or hospital (all of which are apparently well-stocked with the post-exposure rabies antidote).
3) Clean, Cool, Content
Just before my tenth trip to Morocco (yes, this one took me a while to figure out!), I finally came up with a “kill three birds with one stone” solution for bath-time: a small, inflatable paddling pool. (The three birds being cleanliness, temperature control and entertainment.)
Unless you stay in a more expensive hotel (and I have no idea what the facilities are in such places in Morocco), there is unlikely to be a European-style bath to make use of when it comes to bath-time. Yet a proper bath is often the only way by which young children who are used to growing up with ‘bath-time’ can enjoy a wash (at least this is true of my kids, who will scream blue murder under a shower).
The shower or bucket option usually available in Morocco is not a pleasing option to my children (although FreeToBeZ is still small enough that we can make a shallow makeshift bath in the shower basin by blocking up the plughole with something).
I’ve had one bad experience too many with trying to get FreeToBeP (who is extremely sensitive when it comes to water and temperature) to take a wash in the small shower rooms of most Moroccan apartments. Add to this equation ultra-hygiene-conscious FreeToBeB who grew up in a home without running water, without a toilet, without a washroom: he finds it difficult to grasp why a young child doesn’t want to remove the daily, dusty grime under the luxury of a warm shower. I’ve been party to too many heightened emotions about this topic!
Another bonus is that I’ve seen many a Moroccan person casually tip whole buckets of water through their homes to clean the floors. Apart from the slip hazard, the splash zone can be tolerated much more than the same would in my damp-prone home in Britain (if you don’t believe me, read this).
So, next time – a mini paddling pool. Compact enough to easily fit in the luggage, small enough to inflate using just lung power if need be, versatile enough to serve a multitude of purposes.
The kids will get clean. The kids will cool off. The kids will have fun.
4) Risk Assessment
From daring scooter riders to mad dashes across busy roads; from things jutting out of the pavements to numerous potholes and rocky landscapes: there are many hazards in Morocco and it’s not a country known for its adherence to strict health and safety regulations.
While I think we’ve gone too far with some health and safety rules in the UK (no coffee break at toddler groups? Why else do some new mums even go along to toddler groups but for the joy of someone else making them a mug of steaming brew?!), there is definitely a happy medium to be had. Morocco actually makes me grateful for many of our regulations in the UK.
Driving through Morocco is a risky business and my preference is to hire a car that we can check over and drive ourselves rather than trust an unknown, over-confident taxi or bus driver. The state of many of the public transport vehicles themselves does not inspire confidence. Between myself and FreeToBeB, we are both cautious drivers who can generally relax as passengers to one another.
I’ve had trouble finding suitable child safety seats for FreeToBeZ and some laughable moments with the car hire companies. Children’s car seats are generally not used in Morocco (this is a place where you see entire families riding, helmet-less, on a single scooter!). The hire companies have tried to pass me off with some really dodgy, aging contraptions with broken straps and even entire base units missing that have left me feeling like my own grip would be more trustworthy in an accident.
If you’re planning to embark on some road tripping around Morocco and have the option and ability to take your own car seat along with you, it may save a lot of stress and worry to do so. The last time I checked, Easyjet had a policy of allowing up to two bulky infant items (per each child under 2) in the hold for free.
On some occasions we’ve done without – and on others my mother’s intuition (or plain old fear?) has led me to cancel trips rather than travel somewhere without suitable child safety seats.
5) Comfort Zones
If you have a child who is particularly sensitive about their personal space and being touched, you may want to forewarn them about how damn affectionate Moroccan people can be.
There seems to be an unspoken rule that everyone who wishes to comment on your child’s beauty has to do so with at least a ruffle of their hair – and even an unsolicited kiss for a baby. (I suppose a baby doesn’t consciously solicit any kisses, yet our own cultural rule seems to be ‘family only’ for such gestures of love – even friends don’t tend to shower one another’s babies in kisses, let alone strangers in the street!)
I’ve also had people plant kisses on FreeToBeZ’s head as she breastfeeds – after my initial shock, I was glad at the acceptance that she was ‘just’ feeding (compared to the sometimes enforced privacy many women in the UK contend with), but not every breastfeeding mother would be comfortable with this close proximity to her bosom.
There are cultural differences in both bodily autonomy and accepted social mores. Affectionate advances from anyone other than close family members can be confusing and difficult for some children to deal with, especially if they’ve had the ‘stranger danger’ mantra drilled into them back home.
Quite apart from different social etiquette, after one random stranger too many had kissed and pawed FreeToBeZ as a young baby, I began grimacing at the thought of infectious diseases (and I’m not one to worry unnecessarily about such things).
As with the issue of health and safety, I think there’s a balance to be had between the stiff upper lip associated with British folk and the (over?)familiarity displayed by the people of Morocco – between the reserve of suspicion and the open-hearted trust (although I know which one feels best!).
You certainly can’t complain of a lack of warmth in Morocco, and that’s not just the climate.
There are other things to be aware of if you choose to stay in a rural location with your children but I shall hang fire on these for another time.
There are also numerous cultural differences which may seem as irking/worrisome as some of the above to many people, yet many of these are dealt with in some depth in standard travel guides (e.g. this is not the post for learning about how to deal with persistent street vendors!).
Have you visited Morocco with your children? Would you add anything to the above that the travel guides don’t always tell you about? Tell me what you loved too!
Want to read more family travel tips? Read my other articles:
If you visit the High Atlas Mountains around this time of year, this is one of the springtime sights that will greet you: alluring almond blossom. For many families in this region, the almond tree is a staple crop that feeds them through both the consumption and sale of the seed.
I’m always just looking for a small patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time.
This in itself isn’t a problem.
What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding of what is about to happen . . .
We were taking afternoon tea in the well-kept and textile-laden home of a Gendarmerie officer, a friend of FreeToBeB’s.
FreeToBeZ had been quickly changed out of a wet nappy in the shower room of their apartment upon our arrival (one of our reasons for stopping during a leisurely trip from Marrakech up into the Middle Atlas Mountains).
As we waited for FreeToBeB’s friend to finish his shift policing traffic outside the Gendarmerie’s buildings, we drank their tea and ate their biscuits, making small talk with the friend’s wife.
Not half an hour after changing FreeToBeZ, FreeToBeP asked to use the toilet, which I got up to direct him to. We were stopped short by a huge puddle of water on the floor, slipping us up and seeping into our hosts’ living area.
No, it wasn’t a puddle. It was a flood.
The floor must have been a good few millimetres deep in water, soaking the thick pile handmade rugs, turning the tiles into slippery death traps.
It took me but a split second to realise that the leak came from within the shower room.
And but a split second later to realise that it had spread to the bedrooms and kitchen of the beautiful apartment.
And but a split second later to realise that I was the last person to use the bathroom.
Oh ****! What happened?! What have I done?!
The horrible sensation of flight or fight began welling up in my body as I froze on the spot. I was about to wish upon the ground to open up and swallow me as my mind skipped over possible scenarios. Had I left the tap on when I washed my hands? Had there also been a plug in the sink or something?
Thankfully, just as the redness of shame was about to burn my cheeks, it took me but a split second more to recall that when the lady of the house had shown us to the shower room, I’d noticed her move the showerhead into a bucket already full of water. At the time, I’d just assumed she was moving something for her own domestic purposes, not for us. I had no interest in the shower, I was merely intent upon using the floor as a baby changing facility.
It turned out that the officer’s wife had actually turned the shower on and left the water running into the bucket so that I had an ongoing supply with which to wash FreeToBeZ with. The water pressure doesn’t seem to be very good in many Moroccan homes, thus washtime often involves standing in the shower basin with a bucket to scoop cool water from rather than luxuriating beneath the hot rain of a showerhead.
Except I hadn’t asked to wash FreeToBeZ – I’d asked to change her nappy. (The cultural differences in nappy changing etiquette – who knew?! Obviously not me.)
FreeToBeB looked at me in horror, assuming I’d been the absolute cause of the chaos.
“It wasn’t me, it was her!” I exclaimed bluntly in English, hurriedly casting the blame onto our hostess.
Whoever was at fault, it was quite an excruciating time as she insisted she didn’t need any help in mopping the mess up. Even FreeToBeB must have felt out of his depth; usually the first to rush in and lend a hand, he sat as pathetically as me as we watched her clear up the result of her gesture of help.
Thankfully, this is Morocco: I’ve regularly seen people tip buckets of water through their homes to clean up the tiled or dirt floors. Coupled with the intense heat, and their many sodden rugs were quickly lined up along the banisters and railings of the Royal Gendarmerie apartment block to dry.
FreeToBeB’s handgun-adorned friend entered his home once his traffic cop shift had finished. Wide-eyed, he asked his wife what had happened and she graciously stated that she’d left a tap on. He looked faintly amused and promptly sat down, removed his hat, poured himself a glass of tea, and took up an unrelated topic of conversation with FreeToBeB as if nothing had happened.
Overall, it was mashi moushkil all around (Moroccan Arabic for “not a problem”).
That said, we decided to beat a hasty retreat very soon afterwards.
Upon leaving, they enthused that we should visit them for tea again when we were due to pass back through a few days later (really?!).
Suffice to say, as much as FreeToBeB mentioned on our return trip that he’d like to stop for tea at his friend’s, I could only cringe in embarrassment and say “No, please – let’s not!”.
What have been your most embarrassing moments whilst travelling with children? What cultural faux pas has left you with your own cause to cringe? Feel free to share your own stories in the comments below and assure me I’m not the only one who makes a fool of their family.
I’m conscious of the posts I’ve made so far about our latest trip to Morocco not being particularly practical in nature, and possibly being a tad on the ‘grin and bear it’ side!
I’ve also been very aware of all my blessings since returning home and it’s been easy to complain about the things I find difficult in our ‘second home’. I have a love-hate relationship with Morocco that leaves me feeling conflicted and contradictory.
However, there are a number of things I’m already missing about Morocco. Obviously, I’m really missing seeing FreeToBeZ playing and laughing with her daddy; despite the infrequency of our visits, their bond is obvious and strong, and regularly brings tears to my eyes to witness.
But with the aim of providing some insight into the cultural cultivation that anyone can enjoy during a trip to Morocco, here are the 10 things that first come to mind about the pros of spending time there:
1) Embrace the Excitement
Excitement? Ok, read ‘chaos’.
At home in the UK, I could think of myself as a ‘chaotic’ person. My mind is always on the go, I don’t get enough sleep, I perpetually strive for a more organised homelife, and there is always physical, emotional and mental ‘clutter’ (I could use the excuse of children for all of these things – in the spirit of congruence, it’s not just that!).
When I get to Morocco, I don’t see myself as chaotic at all – the external world fulfils that for me!
Arriving two evenings before Eid for our last trip, it really achieved this label: I’d never seen the airport arrivals area so extraordinarily busy (and this was our 10th visit) and there were those people who were more observant of the queuing system-of-a-sort for passport control than others.
Out into the streets and into all the traffic; the constant hooting of car horns, the heightened sense of anxiety as you try to cross a road without being mown down, the people who have less concept of personal space and ‘rights of way’ than I’m used to.
Yet this makes any trip to Morocco immediately tinged with a sense of adventure. Your senses come alive – there is no way they can’t. And if they didn’t, you might find yourself in some undesirable situations thanks to your lack of alertness.
Morocco truly is a place of contrasts – from relaxing on the ponj of a laid-back host who you’ve spent a sedate afternoon enjoying food with, straight into a mêlée of being squeezed along crowded backstreets trying to contain your handbag and your children whilst dodging scooters. I’m sure my blood pressure must rise and fall with interesting frequency when I’m navigating Moroccan towns.
I say this and yet I’m so glad I know this. I’m so glad I’ve seen and experienced this side of the world and have the story to tell. I would urge others to make the trip precisely because of these idiosyncrasies of place.
2) Street Life
Every time I get back to the UK, I wonder at what ghost towns we live in. Where are all the people? Mostly stuck indoors or transporting themselves around in cars.
And when there are people forced together out in public – on trains, queuing for various services, in the supermarket – where is the chatter? Whilst I’m hardly one to complain (being someone who is generally shy to start up conversations with strangers), it strikes me that this reluctance to interact is not just personal but cultural; my traits have always felt at odds with my instincts.
Even in the ‘quiet’ suburbs of Marrakech, the streets are alive – there are always children playing and adults casually chatting with the kerb as their seating.
Whilst there are plenty of cars in Morocco, there are also those who travel by mule or donkey or horse and carriage, or market traders who transport their goods using a handheld cart, which enables those people to be more contactable and present with the pedestrians they share the space with.
There are many reasons for this difference that means it’s not a lifestyle easily recreated in the UK. The weather is often a big deciding factor in whether we’re outdoors or not, and yet there certainly used to be more suburban street life in English cities too.
Without going into the politics and cultural changes that have happened in the UK to destroy communities and encourage people to live more isolated lives, I love the fact that I can exit an apartment in Morocco and know without doubt that the street will be vibrant with the sound of children playing, animals braying and the calls to go praying.
3) Fresh Food
Between buying fresh croissants and crepes for a matter of pennies from a local patisserie and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice from the deliciously sweet native citrus fruits, breakfast food here is imbued with an energy and vibrancy that I just don’t get from our usual morning routine involving a box of cereal and a carton of a long-life dairy-free milk alternative.
Combined with the fact that they make bloody good coffee in Morocco, and the start of the day is usually a good one.
Whilst out on the town and for just 4 Moroccan dirhams (about 30p) you can enjoy a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fna square – at that price, there’s no excuse not to!
There is also an amazing array of different fruit juices and smoothies made to order in many restaurants and cafes that we just don’t find back home unless we were to head for a specialist (expensive) juice bar. And, saying that, I’m not sure I know where to locate one of these in my local area.
Not to forget the figs, olives, almonds and other native foods that are much better in their fresh form than anything you buy in packs at the supermarket.
Whilst it can often be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that ensures many people here eat fresh produce, there is also less emphasis on the supermarket and more emphasis on market culture and seasonal goods.
Many people in the towns also seem more inclined to go out in the mornings and bring fresh breakfast in rather than expecting shelves, cupboards and fridges to be stocked. And FreeToBeB – brought up eating daily-made bread in the family’s traditional outdoor, earthen oven – is often surprised that I’ll happily eat yesterday’s bread in preference to buying the freshly made breads each day. Even against 24 hour old Moroccan flatbreads, our long-life sliced and packaged loaves just can’t compare.
Yes, we may be able to buy freshly prepared food in some shops back home – but the ubiquity and low cost of it in Morocco makes it the easy choice there, whilst it may be the more expensive and less convenient choice in the UK.
It really brings home to me how lifeless are some of the packaged foodstuffs that are supposed to sustain and satiate us. The difference is also reflected in the cooking and the sharing of food – this is only a thought, but I’d say that the way in which Moroccan people are proud of their cuisine as they earnestly encourage you to share in their meals (“Koul! Koul!” – “Eat! Eat!”) is a reflection of the true life force apparent in their food resources.
4) Retailing the Rainbow
OK, so this is a matter of whether you are in town or country. If I think about the natural environments around me, nothing beats the sight of green, green England as we come in to land after a North African excursion. How fresh and lush and brimming with life it appears; I missed this usual view as we came into land at nigh on midnight earlier this month. I wonder if Moroccan people love their ochre landscape as much as I love my green?
However, take to the high street and the drab, dispirited monoculture of a typical British town is apparent. I don’t care how well a chain store thinks it’s dressed its window, it’s not a patch on the flood of sights that comes with a walk amidst the market of a Moroccan city.
Whilst I’m not a keen shopper and would rather not focus on material goods, I love wandering the souks of Marrakech and being charmed by all the colour and glitter and exuberance around me. Yes, you could purchase something as a reminder of your visit, thinking that the vitality of the items will remain, but – just like the picking of a flower – something of their life-force invariably falls away once they are set apart from their original backdrop.
Every shade of the rainbow is everywhere to see and the beautiful clothing and jewellery makes a feast for the eyes. The joy isn’t in purchasing single items of these delights but in seeing them all together in a jumble of hues and patterns and textures: piles and piles of unabashedly embellished and gleeful garments in the clothing stores, small shops crammed to the ceiling full of shining thuya wood products, ceramic diningware decorated in intense colours and swirling patterns, florid and flowery offerings at the textile merchants . . .
. . . Not to mention the scents wafting from spice shops and cosmetic sellers. From the bright and showy pyramids of turmeric and cumin, to the smoke of incense blooming from a stall of hammam products, the combination of the sights, smells and sounds of the souk come together to remind me of the beauty and vivacity of life.
The effect is kaleidoscopic and I could spin myself around admiring it all for hours.
To see more of what I mean, you might like to visit my Pinterest board ‘Morocco’ dedicated to the delightful side of this country of contrasts.
While this can sometimes be frustrating, if you want a peaceful break free of pressure, it’s helpful to take on the Moroccans’ mañana attitude.
It’s a good attitude to adopt for any family break (emphasis on the fact that a holiday should indeed be a rest from the usual daily grind!) and taking it on in Morocco will ensure your increased immunity against impatience at the sometimes slow and seemingly unreliable pace at which things often appear to get done here.
You can be asleep at any point of the day here (or up and about at any point during the night) and it’s perfectly acceptable. This is particularly true during the long, hot summer days.
Things get done when people feel like getting them done, so little does the structured, time-bound mentality of what I would consider a ‘usual’ working day penetrate many people’s lives here. And yet – everything gets done.
In the words of Lao-Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco just waiting. And often not even knowing what exactly I’m waiting for. Just knowing that in order for the next thing that needs to get done to get done, I must bide my time and trust the process. From a world of appointments and general punctuality (I shall never again complain about the length of wait at a dental practice), I could see this as a con rather than a pro of my time in Morocco – but it’s yet another practice in mindfulness.
I’ve had time to sit and reflect, hence why so much writing comes of my trips. I’ve had time to sit beside my demons of impatience and judgement and talk them into angels of patience and acceptance. I’ve had time to savour the food at my lips instead of rushing the routine of mealtimes. I’ve had time to sit and listen and absorb the social discourse around me, more rather than less intriguing for its unintelligible vocabulary.
And it has taught me that there is time. It is ‘stuff’ that gets in the way back home. Stuff I would rather relegate to the recycle bin so I can sit and just be with my children, sit and just be with my self.
It’s taken me a while to get over some of my typical British politeness and make the most of this. Indeed, what may be considered more ‘polite’ over here can be seen as a snub to your hosts over there, especially if you refuse a glass of the ubiquitous sweet mint tea whilst everyone else is cheerfully partaking.
That said, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by the level of generosity we’ve been shown, especially when it’s been unplanned and I feel we’ve had nothing to give in return.
We once had a really sweet guy named Hicham guiding us around Fez (he was a school teacher on his summer break and was with us as a compassionate companion rather than a guide looking to make money out of us). On our second afternoon with him, he took us back to his parents’ home for a meal. It was an elaborate meal and was followed by their encouragement for us to take a post-meal nap by curtaining off an area of their living quarters so that the ponjs (Moroccan sofas) could take on their alternative use as day beds. So we – strangers to them – passed an hour or so privately chilling out in their living room.
As if this wasn’t enough, before we left, the matriarch of the house (who must have already spent hours preparing food in the kitchen) then insisted on pressing various items of costume jewellery and cheap but pretty bracelets into the hands of myself and FreeToBeZ – even after FreeToBeZ had already broken one such bracelet, tiny beads bursting across the tiled floor. I frantically tried to reject the jewellery in embarrassment (I should be bringing the gifts as a guest!), but our hostess wouldn’t have any of it; smiling and laughing and nodding, she insisted I take her offerings and I eventually accepted as graciously as I could amidst my discomfort.
I also get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in someone’s home. I’m always just looking for a patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time, usually accompanied by the lady of the house rushing to find soap and towels.
This in itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding about what is about to happen . . . But this is a whole other story . . .
However, I will never forget how observant and human some people have been about genuine needs.
For a week during a stay in 2013, we were accommodated by local people in two different cities when all the rooms were full at the inn.
I will never forget the relief of hearing that Halima, a bolshy and outspoken Rifian lady in Al Hoceima, had kindly offered us her sitting room to stay in when it was nearly midnight and we still hadn’t found a bed for ourselves. As she walked home on that hot August night, she saw a family taking shelter on an empty shop floor and spontaneously opened up her home. We paid her more generously than I am generally willing to pay Moroccan hotels – and I can’t even be cynical about her intentions of inviting us (knowing that some people here see a European person and simultaneously see money); for when she first saw us she thought we were entirely a fellow Berber family, and not just because of FreeToBeB’s ability to claim this (it turned out she thought all European women used pushchairs for their infants – FreeToBeZ worn closely to me in a sling was enough for her to decide to distinguish me as a fellow Berber woman!).
Pretty much the same thing happened again just 3 nights later in Chefchouen, and we spent a wonderful 5 days relaxing in the spare living quarters of a kindly older widower.
If anything, it has given me all the more faith in travelling ‘on a wing and a prayer’, not to mention faith in the kindness of humans who have not been jaded by the ‘stranger danger’ mantra so prevalent in Western societies.
I’m all for a more simple life. It takes a lot of discipline and a big change of perspective for someone brought up in a commercial culture. And, whilst I often complain about how difficult it is to cook on a single ring over a gas bottle or to have a proper wash with just a bucket of water and a jug, in reality it’s only difficult because of all the luxuries I’m used to. There is no excuse to go hungry or to not be clean when you have the means at your disposal.
OK, if I actually lived in Morocco I’d ensure I have a decent electric oven with at least 4 cooking plates and a wet room big enough to install a ‘proper’ bath, but – as with camping – it can be good to get back to the simple life, even if it is just a way to truly appreciate what we take for granted in our own homes in better-off countries.
For all the daydreams of a ‘back to nature’ lifestyle of self-sufficiency in an unspoilt landscape, reliant on community and surviving (literally and economically) on home-grown produce . . . the reality can be harsh. Yes, being amidst the Atlas Mountains and a group of people I was unable to verbally communicate with whilst they clean sheep innards is very different to, say, joining a vegetarian English commune in a field in Devon, but the point is valid: romantic, rose-tinted ideas of ‘the good life’ are naïve and impractical.
In order to enjoy a simple lifestyle, the first step isn’t necessarily about diving into the embodied experience of it but in changing your perspective of what is already around you and slowly forgoing the things that don’t genuinely serve you.
Since returning from our latest trip, my de-cluttering project has resurfaced with a vengeance. There is a tidiness to the simplicity found in Morocco. Not only is the home tidy due to lack of ‘stuff’, but it makes everything else seem tidier – easier. Rough play with the kids becomes an almost anytime possibility when there isn’t a floor full of toys to trip over or various breakables dotted about the living space that douse the fire of playful spontaneity. True presence and communication with the people you are sharing your space with becomes more attainable when one isn’t constantly distracted by the ‘things to do’ that come with living a complex, modern life.
For all the talk of ‘modern conveniences’, many things that are supposed to make life more convenient actually make it more complicated, or at least less fulfilling. We race around partaking in ten quick and convenient habits when – psychologically and spiritually – we may yearn for two more involved jobs performed mindfully.
Honestly: I would rather spend a morning engaged in bread-making with my peers as the children run around together than to spend half an hour in isolation preparing ingredients for and later washing up the equipment needed to bake bread in a machine, potentially in a rush whilst trying to get the kids out of the house for a social ‘appointment’. This concept of making an appointment to pop in and see your friends is something else that is alien in Morocco – again, it comes down to ideas of convenience and inconvenience. And this is why I operate an ‘open home’ policy with my friends (that is, proving this point, rarely taken up) – I never want my friends to see their presence as an inconvenience to me, to think that I might have better things to do alone than could be gained from connecting with another human being.
We’re social animals; and in the vast array of things to do, places to be and material matters to attend to, this basic fact is becoming lost in ‘developed’ nations.
When material possessions that are surplus to genuine needs are set aside, we may actually appreciate what is truly necessary for a whole and healthy life.
8) The Joy of Children
In many ways, I can relax in Morocco with kids in tow.
I will soon be posting my top tips of things to take into consideration when travelling with children in Morocco (mainly about the not so relaxing stuff!), but one thing I can say with confidence is that no-one will mind you bringing your kids. If anything, people in Morocco generally take great joy in children and, when I travelled without FreeToBeP this summer, he was very much missed by those who expected him to be with me.
From breastfeeding an infant to having my kids become over-excitable whilst out and about, people here look upon the natural and typical behaviour of young children with endearment and acceptance. I have no fear of any tut-tutting as I breastfeed in public or while my toddler has a loud meltdown. And thanks to the relaxed state of mind that this lack of tut-tutting fosters in me, my children are also more relaxed, ergo I have less fear of my children even having said meltdowns.
Children playing in the streets late into the night is a common sight and sound. On hot days when families have been indoors having siestas, the whole family may come out at night to enjoy the street life, and this fits in well with my own relaxed attitude about bedtimes (whilst we have a routine, we do not have a schedule!).
Many so-called ‘attachment parenting’ beliefs and practices I try to live by are taken for granted here – there is no label, just women doing what they have always done to birth and raise their children naturally (homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing). These are all things that I instinctively felt drawn to do as a mother that have been overshadowed in Western societies by the medicalisation of birth and the commercialisation of babyhood.
This is not to say that I agree with all the parenting practices that are at play in Morocco. I know that the ‘good’ behaviour of many Moroccan children is less about respect for the parents than fear of The Stick (physical punishment both at home and in school seems to be a socially acceptable tool for eliciting cooperation from a child).
And yet the positive bonds of family and community are obvious – the shared laughter as families gather together in their living quarters during and after evening meals; the acceptance of children as part of the community after the 9pm watershed; the ease with which the people here will pick up and dust off crying children who are not their own; or merely the planting of kisses and tousling of hair performed in the unselfconscious manner of those who are comfortable being around and showing affection towards the younger members of our human family.
9) Flora and Fauna
Whether out in the wilds of the mountains or in the centre of bustling Marrakech, there are plenty of sights to see for those interested in animals and plants.
If you’ve got young children in tow, excitedly spotting horses and donkeys will soon become second nature in both town and country.
Whilst in the city much of what you see can’t be classed as ‘wildlife’ and there is often suspect animal welfare, it can’t be denied that there are novelties to be enjoyed.
In Marrakech alone, there are plenty of intrigues for anyone interested in natural history. Merely taking a taxi into town, budding botanists can spot palm trees (this might be more ‘exotic’ for some than others; here on the Jurassic Coast we’re already quite spoilt for more Mediterranean plants and trees), orange trees, olive trees, Damask roses and various succulents surviving in the arid soil.
If that’s not enough to satisfy your thirst for greenery, Marrakech boasts a number of gardens that can be worth a visit. Whilst I primarily wish to share information about things you can appreciate for next to nothing, I would gladly part with a few pounds again in order to revisit the Majorelle Gardens.
A visit to the pool of Marrakech Manara will grant you a view of half-tame fish which come to the surface to be fed.
Storks roost on the roofs and wide walls of tall buildings, including the minarets of the mosques.
Mules, horses and donkeys are common sights at the roadside and upon the roads, and camels are brought into the cities as tourist attractions (but the obvious thing to do if you want authentic camel memories is to make the journey to the Sahara).
Jemaa El Fna in the daytime can be like taking a trip to the zoo: snakes, monkeys, birds and other creatures are taken for display – you can look at these from a safe distance (safe from being encouraged to part with money that is) or for a small fee can have your picture taken with them.
In the mountains I have seen some beautiful butterflies and huge, sleek millipedes, as well as snakes, scorpions, and the evidence of wild boars.
The mountains can be quite colourful in the springtime with swathes of flowers.
The cacti of the prickly pear is also easily spotted along roadsides and around villages – the abundance of them is evident in the amount of fruit that is left unpicked (think of them in terms of the humble British apple tree!). There are also many herbaceous plants which the local women pick in order to use for medicinal purposes.
We have had our curiosity piqued by the array of insects we’ve spotted, all the more enticing to look at precisely because we don’t know if they’re things that could bite or sting us. Judging by the way I’ve seen some of the locals react to the sight of a spider – and assuming they don’t just have tendencies towards arachnophobia – I think it’s probably safe to say that there are resident arachnids that could cause harm to humans. And I’ve already detailed our encounters with cockroaches.
I also have a ‘thing’ about birds (not sure if this grew from my childhood YOC membership or a more primal, psychological desire to ‘grow wings’) and have noticed many species of birds that I am unfamiliar with. I only wish I could use more informed, naturalist terminology to explain what I’ve seen! (If anyone knows more about the wildlife of North Africa, please do get in touch.)
Thus my next step is to find the Moroccan equivalent of my trusty ‘British Wildlife’ book.
10) Sun, Sun and Sun!
Last but definitely not least: glorious sunshine and dry heat is a huge plus point.
In Morocco I can pretty much forget that I’m medicated for asthma. The dry heat is really good for my lungs and barely a wheeze escapes me.
Yes, it can get too hot during the day, but the simple solution to this is that you adjust your expectations about what happens when. During our summer trip we were getting up during early afternoon, having an extremely late breakfast, eating lunch at teatime and then heading out for the ‘day’ when it had cooled down a little (to about 36 degrees Celsius that is) at around 6pm.
Whatever the thermometer may say, I find the dryness of North African heat much more bearable than the humidity of a ‘hot’ day in the UK. In my opinion, a dry and clean 35 degrees is much preferable to a sweaty 25 degrees!
Aside from general sun-seeking and the knowledge that both your physical and mental health are being given a boost thanks to the production of vitamin D and serotonin, the other bonus is in the small joy that is knowing your clothes will be bone dry within the space of a couple of hours after washing them.
Yes: simple pleasures.
In writing this, it would seem that the love-hate relationship I maintain with this country really is due to focusing so much on the contrasts and comparisons that a more objective view is obscured. For wherever you are, there are pros and cons, highs and lows. For whatever nuisances and inconveniences exist, there are so many things in this world that have the power to brighten our day.
Looking back on this list, the things that have the power to uplift – the things that really matter – are invariably day to day experiences that cost nothing, yet lend to us a wealth of spirit that can make any place a pleasure.
On this note, I’m off to make myself an avocado smoothie and eat some self-imported Atlas almonds . . .
Written early August 2014, a few days into our summer trip to Marrakech, Morocco.
Here I am. In Morocco.
Here I am, needing to refine my ability to ‘just be’. For someone who spends a lot of time reading about and agreeing with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, I’m not very good at it.
I’d been in Morocco for less than 24 hours before I began to sense the ennui that sometimes overcomes me here. I had to take a step back and recall some of the aims of my visit – the ‘3 Rs’:
At home I’m constantly busy, something FreeToBeB finds difficult to comprehend (despite it being obvious to me that between being a lone parent to two young children, running a household, engaging in various social and voluntary pursuits, working on creative endeavours, not to mention trying to pursue my many and varied interests, I am invariably burning the candle at both ends). Yet from his point of view, I appear to have better things to do than chat to him via Skype – for when I do find the time, I’m often distracted by the kids, trying to multitask with work on the computer, in the middle of cooking dinner or cutting our conversation short in order to pick FreeToBeP up from school.
In Morocco, the opposite happens to me: freed from most of my usual household duties, my social circle, the school routine and the variety of other things that usually keep me occupied, I find myself at a loose end here. This time, I don’t even have FreeToBeP with me to keep me on my toes.
I should be grateful for the rest.
But it’s all part of the culture shock, and there is a period of adjustment.
I keep thinking of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. I’m aware of my need for self-actualisation – the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human life, the gateway to transcendence – being unseen, unrecognised, unfulfilled. It’s a distinctly cultural issue, as I don’t think the idea of ‘hobbies’ and many concepts of personal development are particularly prevalent here.
And with the more simple way of life in Morocco, oftentimes my own thoughts turn to more basic needs rather than anything of a ‘higher nature’.
Rather than considering what educational activities I can come up with for the kids, I’m thinking about the need to boil water for a wash. Rather than having my hands and mind free to complete other tasks whilst keeping an eye on dinner cooking safely up on the stove and/or in the oven, I’m trying to figure out how to cook a full meal on a single hob over a gas cylinder on the floor whilst keeping intrigued children out of the way.
Up in FreeToBeB’s family home in the Atlas Mountains – without a bathroom or running water – I am quite literally functioning at the base of the pyramid (“Where can I find a private spot to go to the toilet [outdoors] tonight without risking the attention of wild boars?”).
Thus, time passes differently for many people here, especially for those who have grown up in the countryside.
This observation has been confirmed by a Moroccan author whose work I have been reading this week:
“When it’s hot, people go to ground in their homes until dusk, learning to wait, learning to do nothing. They don’t talk about the climate and its hardships. They sit cross-legged on mats, shifting positions, then changing places. They don’t even look at the sky . . . they forget about the hours that drag by. Instead of passing from one person to another, words seem to bump into the walls and crumble away. So no one speaks. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do . . . Life is simple, and simply terrible.” (Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village)
Yes, at least I can sit and read, something I can see as ‘productive relaxation’. Yet reading for pleasure does not seem to be a typical pastime for many people here, which may be directly linked to literacy rates in Morocco or perhaps it is our more secluded lives in the UK that allow us to partake in such pastimes.
Reading forms such a fundamental basis to my own learning and aspirations, that I can’t imagine life without written material to study, digest and philosophise over. I accept that this is my personal way to access my own ideas and dreams, and yet everyone needs something to inspire new ideas and dreams. Don’t they? To what extent do people in more traditional societies – not caught up in the same individualistic society as I am – even embrace their own ideas and dreams? Surely, I’ve thought, my striving for ‘something more’ is a normal, human drive to explore and discover and create? How indeed has the human race got where it is today without that drive?
And then I remember: life up in the Moroccan mountains is pretty much akin to how it must have been for centuries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sharp and sometimes grating contrast to my own lifestyle, full of my need for change and contrast, full of options and choices and everything around us telling us to personalise our content – create a unique identity and prove what we’re doing to make our way in the world.
There have always been trailblazers, explorers and inventors in the world who help push the human species into new territories. Yet for most of human history, these have been but a few faces upon backbones of larger communities. These days, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we are encouraged not to make our way as a community but as individuals, thinking about how best to progress life for I, Me, Myself.
And not forgetting Maslow’s hierarchy, we are lucky in the UK that most of us don’t have to worry about those bottom two layers, but can take it for granted that we have 3 meals a day and a doctor’s surgery, free at the point of service, just up the road. This isn’t true in places such as Morocco, where as many as 1 in 4 people have a hand-to-mouth existence and cannot afford basic medical care. What time or motivation is there for self-actualisation when your number one concern is ensuring you have a few coins in your hand at the end of the day in order to procure an evening meal?
And, whilst we have seemingly unlimited choice in what we choose for our intellectual and creative pursuits in Western nations, that’s not to say that those in less eclectic cultures can’t pursue valuable and valid personal projects. Who am I to say that a mountain woman making blankets or rugs is merely doing it for survival and following tradition? Yes, it is a tradition – but perhaps it is also her passion and her creative outlet that allows her to reach her own sense of self-actualisation? Who am I to say she isn’t creating her own individual style? Who am I to say that my own ideas of living a creative and fulfilled life have universal meaning across cultures? Of course they don’t.
And perhaps this is why, like a fish out of water, I struggle to adapt my ideals to my reality here. One has to work with what is at hand, and if the country you are in has different things at hand than the country you are used to, your ideas of how to work and what to work on may have to change.
The silly thing is that I feel I should be better equipped and better educated to deal with these differences than I seem to be. I’ve attended so many academic courses, meditated and prayed my way through so many spiritual traditions, owned and read so many books, that on the one hand I feel I “should know better” and on the other hand I’m not quite sure what to do with everything that crowds my restless mind. I have the unsettling feeling that I’m always missing the point.
Conversely, FreeToBeB spent about seven years in formal education as a child, being taught in a language that he had to pick up as he went along. The only books I’ve seen in his possession are bilingual dictionaries and other language-learning materials that actually seem quite surplus to his requirements as a polyglot who can speak seven languages to differing extents, self-taught through interactions with other speakers of those languages.
Occasionally the phrase “At the mosque they said . . .” will emerge from his mouth, but even this he says with detachment: he repeats what he’s heard but admits he doesn’t know enough about the subject at hand to either verify or deny the claims. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know. He shrugs and lets the subject go. He doesn’t understand why I’m always asking “Why?”, like an eternal child.
My point? FreeToBeB seems untroubled by the ever-changing thoughts and questions and the pervading restlessness that punctuates my own mental life. Yes, he sometimes feels fed up, but not in the desperate manner in which I do, whereby I feel selfish for sitting still and doing nothing when world peace has not yet been achieved (note to self: don’t hate – meditate!).
However, it’s now our fourth day here and I think I may well be settling into ‘relax’ mode at last. We were intending to attend a family wedding in Beni Mellal today (the marriage of one of FreeToBeB’s many nieces), but last night I felt ill and tired and worried, so I bailed out.
So much for an adventure! I’m afraid this bout of ‘travel blogging’ doesn’t involve a great deal of your typical traveller stories, much more concerned am I about taking the time to sit still for a while and look after my pregnant body.
Anyway, I couldn’t fathom if the nausea, dizziness and headache I was suffering were a psychosomatic response to heightened emotions (having allowed an issue with FreeToBeB to degenerate into an argument), whether the heat or some dodgy food was having its effect, or if I should be wracking my brains to recall the symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Whatever it was, it was enough to put me off a journey which would entail the generous use of Rescue Remedy in order to calm myself about the dubious road safety record in this country.
Yet I awoke today feeling just a little lethargic and checked myself to see if I was annoyed that I hadn’t committed to honouring the wedding and gone anyway. No, it’s fine; I’m not going to regret this missed opportunity on my deathbed.
We’d all had a late night and didn’t awaken properly until 2pm. We started the day slowly, still eating breakfast at 4pm, treating myself to a favourite yoghurt of cream and cereal which would be way too much of a guilty pleasure at home, where I adhere as much as possible to a vegan diet. I balance it out here knowing that my asthma (exacerbated by dairy products) is usually at bay in the dry heat where I don’t have my damp flat to contend with.
During our leisurely breakfast, I sat daydreaming about lush, green forests and clear, flowing streams of water. I’m yearning for the greenery of England and the seaside of my hometown. But here I am, in Abouab, Marrakech: I know I will exit the front door here to a view of dust and litter and ill-kept streets full of trip hazards. Am I looking on the negative side? No, I’m just looking; saying it as I see it. Here I am.
Despite the daydreams, I actually feel like they’ve come of a desire to ‘retreat and relax’. Let’s just sit here and observe my thoughts.
I’m glad I didn’t rush around purchasing fancy clothes and gifts in order to attend a wedding. Instead, I’m reading a book by a fellow ‘mum blogger’, a read I chanced upon whilst browsing the Kindle store for free downloads to keep me occupied (yes, always that need to be ‘occupied’!). [For those who may be interested, the book is Trees As Tall As Mountains by Rachel Devenish Ford].
This book is balancing. As this fellow mother talks of the joys and pains of parenting her 3 young children and her need to remember to connect to the divine in times of difficulty, it’s a good reminder to myself. Having exchanged some angry words with FreeToBeB last night, I feel I can live today in more grace.
Spontaneous smiles of love and contentment are blooming on my face as I watch FreeToBeZ playing exuberantly, a simple pleasure as I sip sweet, smooth coffee that tastes nothing like the bitter beverage I’m used to at home. The electric fan stirs the skirt of my dress around my ankles as it attempts to penetrate the stifling summer heat and, focusing on this gentle sensation, it’s enough to remind me: here I am; I am alive; what a wonderful world.
So, here I am: overcoming an inner battle of ‘shoulds’. I’m in another country, I ‘should’ be exploring, I ‘should’ go somewhere new. If I’m craving the sea, perhaps we ‘should’ hop on the coach to Agadir? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to see what it’s like. But at the moment it intuitively feels as likely a trip as saying “Ah, New Zealand – I’ve never been there.”
No, here I am trying to embrace the ennui and instead think of it in terms of those 3 R words: this is my retreat, my respite, my relaxation.
Last night I managed to find a place of peace as I prayed and visualised the amazing lifestyle of my dreams. It seemed all the more attainable thanks to being in a country that still relies so much on community and extended family, and due to the aforementioned book being based in an intentional community.
I saw myself amongst a group of people building together, cooking together, cleaning together, helping each other. Between us there were many children, playing as a pack outdoors, laughter streaming after them as they chased through meadows of tall, sun-browned grass . . .
What a cliché! All I need now are some John Lennon specs and flowers in my hair.
But the combination of my knowledge of the more communal, traditional Imazighen life here in Morocco and the impression made on me by an article a dear friend shared with me just before my trip (I Miss the Village) has watered a seed that has rested in my mind for a long time.
I notice that many of the challenges I experience stem from being an isolated single mother, which I keenly feel is not a natural, human state of being. And how ironic that within this isolation I never get the chance to rest and retreat, so consumed am I by being solely responsible for so many things, not least the two little people who depend on me 24/7.
I needed to get away to reflect on what I really want and need in my life. Our times in Morocco are such a contrast to our life in the UK that I can more easily see the pros and cons of both places and wonder how and where I can carve out an existence for my family that embodies the pros of both.
I always come to the conclusion that a commune in a warm climate is my ideal home.
Retreating into myself as FreeToBeP is cared for by my parents back in England and FreeToBeZ is entertained by her father across the room, I can sense my genuine needs, pick out the life ideals that may be desirable but not altogether attainable and/or necessary, and really sort all the wheat from the chaff.
I’m sitting still here, happily observing the mundane yet mighty moments of everyday life.
How can I be anything but appreciative as FreeToBeB cooks and serves me food and I temporarily escape from it being my own daily duty?
How can I be anything but appreciative as I soak up my daughter’s smiles? Such food for the soul. As I bask in them, I nourish myself in a way that I often neglect to do.
I’ve spent the past few hours thinking “Here I am – nowhere else but here”, reminding myself to be truly present in the moment, cherishing the little moments that make life a life lived.
FreeToBeZ just took both FreeToBeB and I in her tiny hands and led us to the shower room, wishing to play with water and wanting us both to witness her splashes. After performing the necessary ablutions to ensure her cleanliness, FreeToBeB blocked up the plughole with a plastic bag so she could sit in the water and enjoy a ‘bath’.
This is what I meant in Paltry Packing when I stated that kids are generally easy to entertain without all the toys and gadgets, providing you are present and patient. Rather than the rushed, pre-bedtime, functional ‘bathtime’ of home, I sat gazing adoringly at FreeToBeZ as she giggled each time she tipped a jug of cool water over herself. She doesn’t need Agadir.
Really: if some folks travel all the way to India to sit in a monastery on silent retreat, why can’t I have my own retreat in Morocco, a place where I have already enjoyed a significant amount of exploring?
Why must I be ‘doing’ when I could purely be ‘being’?
Perhaps, here, I can teach myself to relax. Surely that would be a worthwhile occupation? I may even (guiltily, self-consciously, apologetically) ask FreeToBeB for a shoulder massage later.
Quite apart from making my children aware of different traditions and lifestyles across the world, what better thing to teach them than effective self-care?
For there is no better springboard towards caring for and understanding others than to care for and understand one’s own self first.
I’m researching them as I’m inspired to write a horror movie script with cockroaches as the big scare (is someone going to tell me that it’s already been done?).
We may not have embarked on any road trips during this visit to Morocco but, hey, who needs a road trip when all manner of fauna will visit you in your own accommodation? It’s a veritable biology lesson here.
At least we’re in the city where this seems limited to cockroaches and mice – I suppose I could be up in the mountains writing about scorpions and snakes and wild boars. I find both scorpions and snakes extremely fascinating, but don’t much fancy being visited by a wild one as I sleep – the latter recently paid FreeToBeB a visit at his mountain workplace as he tried to rest, which he caught and promptly posed with:
I’m losing count of the number of cockroaches I’ve spotted during our first five days in Marrakech. The number I’ve personally delivered a death blow to now requires nearly all my fingers to count upon.
My first ‘victim’ escaped. I’d decided to use the all-round answer to everything that is neat tea tree oil – great for controlling fleas and lice, getting rid of mould and warts, cleaning wounds, drying out spots, general domestic cleaning needs and various other things that require nasties to be killed.
As I allowed the tea tree oil to rain down upon the cockroach, it did indeed have some sort of reaction. It flexed its body in a strange manner and I envisioned it keeling over onto its back. I momentarily glanced away and when my gaze returned, it was nowhere to be seen. It had fled to safety.
I then recalled hearing that, if any creature could survive a nuclear war, it would probably be a cockroach. Suddenly, my tea tree oil didn’t seem quite as toxic as I’d hoped and my expectation of its efficacy seemed naïve. Judging by its effect on skin tags, I feel sure if somebody poured a vat of tea tree oil onto me I’d shrivel up and die. But then I’m merely a human, not a cockroach.
Having caught sight of another one in the living room from the corner of my eye, FreeToBeZ is in on the action, promptly announcing that she will fetch her shoe as a weapon. She learns quickly this girl! Although when she announced the same thing upon spotting a mouse, I realised I’d have to make some distinctions.
I really don’t like killing things, but as long as these creatures have no qualms in wriggling their creepy-crawly bodies over me while I lie in bed at night, then they’re going to be treated harshly.
I swiftly and firmly smacked the offending bug with my daughter’s sandal twice. It lay on its back, first twitching a leg, then twitching an antennae, then lying still, playing dead.
Oh, I’m onto them by now and it didn’t fool me that easily. Within a matter of seconds, it had somehow managed to flip itself over and tried to scuttle off on its merry way, thus enticing me to give it another sharp whack with the innocent-looking, toddler-sized, bright pink plastic sandal. This time its insides ruptured and it half lay in its own goo and yet, honestly, almost immediately its legs were thrashing wildly again in a bid to get away and continue living (yes, I suppose it could just be death throes, but who knows with these things!).
Oh my god. Please just die! Just die, damn you!
Being aware of myself – animal lover and pacifist – administering a prolonged, violent death to this creature, combined with its seeming immortality, was drawing pathetic little whines of despair from me.
I had a vision of numerous ‘dead’ cockroaches being left on their backs on the tiled floor having been spotted and beaten. Whilst casually sat reading a book or watching TV, the creepy horror film music begins as, suddenly and simultaneously, the cretins rise from the dead in a bid to begin their freakish cockroach zombie apocalypse. Ugh. Just the thought makes me involuntarily shake. The thing is, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination.
When it finally seemed to accept the presence of the Grim Reaper, I decided it was time for bed. I thanked the universe that I hadn’t been woken at night during this trip to the sensation of them scuttling over my naked body, as had happened last year after a particularly testing week that had me crying “Oh my god, I hate this country!” The cockroaches had been the straw that had broken the camel’s back last summer.
No sooner had I offered my appreciation for this small mercy did I notice a suspicious movement on the side of the mattress. Grabbing a glass and saucer to catch it against the soft surface, the cockroach tried to hide first under the bedsheet and then between the mattress and the wall. Losing the ability to capture it easily, I moved the mattress slightly to keep check on where it went and spotted more big brown bugs moving in the gap, within inches of our pillows.
I gave up hope. I gave up my bid to begin bedtime and decided to pathetically wait for FreeToBeB to return from seeing a friend and get him to deal with the little monsters. We’d been walking past the posh hotels in Gueliz earlier in the evening, where FreeToBeB had joked about how much it would cost to be cockroach-free and instead blessed with a swimming pool. Suddenly, £100 per night for a room didn’t seem like such a terrible option.
My saviour returned within the half hour and promptly began cleaning out the bedroom. He assured me that nothing kills cockroaches. Except maybe bleach.
“Wow!” FreeToBeB exclaimed as he tried to kill one but it refused to submit to death, “If I hit a person like that they’d die! But not this thing!”
As we discussed the survival capabilities of such an apparently humble creature, I continued to spot them. Behind the bedroom door. In the living room. Scuttling down the hallway. On the rug of our host’s room. Even FreeToBeB, wide-eyed, couldn’t believe the frequency with which I was reporting on their appearances. “Perhaps all the cockroaches in Marrakech are in this apartment.” he said. Yeah. Thanks for that.
Up flashed a memory of the scene in Arachnophobia where the spiders burst out and flow from the walls and crevices of their host house – except my mind’s eye replaced the spiders with cockroaches.
FreeToBeB then had a jump-out-of-one’s-skin moment when FreeToBeZ pointed out the critter just about to crawl over his arm as he sat watching TV. Then FreeToBeZ had a scare as FreeToBeB discovered yet another one in the hallway; as it attempted to escape capture it sped straight for FreeToBeZ. She let out a distressed squeal as she scrabbled to get up from the floor and run away, and then dissolved into traumatised tears.
So, this is the thing our family memories are made of.
Thankfully, the night passed without further incidence. Yet in the morning, as FreeToBeZ cuddled up to me and fed in her sleep, she suddenly let out a piercing scream and cried in the manner of one with night terrors.
“What’s the matter, baby?!”
“’Son me! ‘Son me!”
I desperately looked round for the creepy-crawly perpetrator I expected to find: nothing.
“What do you think is on you?”
“Gerri’off! Gerri’off! ‘Nail! ‘Nail!”
“There’s a snail on you?”
“No, darling, there’s no snail on you. You’ve had a bad dream.”
Yes, definitely horror movie material if they cause that sort of dream.
But don’t worry, little one. Just a few more days and we’ll be back in our damp Dorset flat, where the only uninvited night time guests are the slightly less scary slugs and woodlice that come out from their hidey-holes by cover of darkness to explore our basement bedroom.
Yes, just slugs and woodlice in our bedroom back home. No problem. It’s amazing what a bit of travelling can do to change your perspective.
I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.
I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).
Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, bread, and sweet pastries.
Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a tagine cooked with a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.
I have a plant-based diet in my own home but allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.
These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I sometimes wonder if it is more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian/vegan diet in Morocco).
Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.
It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.
From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).
In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.
I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.
Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.
I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the food, I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.
“I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink,” said my host.
I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.
Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.
I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.
That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?
Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.
I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.
I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.
Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.
I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.
And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.
I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.
I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.
However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?
If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.
Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.
I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:
What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?
What do you, my child, believe?
Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.
This visit includes the festivities of Eid El Fitr and invites to two weddings (not 100% confirmed; this is Morocco we’re talking about – “in two weeks” could just as easily mean “in two months”).
We’ll be going with just two small backpacks and a handbag.
I fully intend to have a Mary Poppins-style experience when removing my belongings from my bags at my destination, with much more than seems possible packed into our modest hand luggage. Yes, I’ve trimmed back a lot in order to travel lightly (so it won’t seem as if everything but the kitchen sink is in there) but what should be apparent is a sense of what is truly necessary for us.
We’re flying with Ryanair, who are notorious for being stingy with baggage allowances. Therefore, I decided on the backpack option rather than going for my usual cabin-sized suitcase – I’m not going to risk them charging me an arm and a leg for chucking my carefully crafted ‘hand luggage only’ trip into the plane’s hold just because a cabin bag’s wheels take me 5mm over the maximum allowed dimensions or something.
Having a backpack on my back is also a lot easier to handle than needing a spare hand to wheel/carry a small suitcase around.
On the plus side, Ryanair have recently made an allowance for an extra, small bag per passenger as well as the usual cabin bag allowance. The additional small bag allowance fits the dimensions of my usual handbag perfectly.
Both FreeToBeZ and I are each allowed to board the cabin with a 55x40x20cm bag and a 35x20x20cm bag.
FreeToBeZ’s toddler-sized backpack actually fits the dimensions of the latter, so for our return journey I’ve factored in the option of another bag (a fold-up one which will be taken, outbound, in my main bag). This will come within our hand luggage allowance yet ensure we have an appropriate carrier for our return journey for any gifts or other purchases we may wish to come home with.
In the case of not having the option of the additional small bag, I usually take a small shoulder bag – big enough to fit the important and valuable possessions (e.g. passports, boarding passes, purse, phone, ipod, medication) yet small enough to discreetly tuck under a cardigan or coat so as not to be penalised for taking on extra items that won’t fit into my already crammed cabin bag.
So, here’s what we’re actually taking with us:
This is a ‘laptop’ backpack (i.e. a slim backpack that has a compartment specifically to fit and pad a standard-sized laptop computer, plus a main compartment, a smaller compartment on the front, and two pockets). Its dimensions are 50x30x20cm.
Clothing and accessories:
2x pairs of knickers
1x pair of socks
1x thin, light summer dress
1x thin, light long-sleeved kaftan-style top
2x short-sleeved tops (for either under or outer wear)
All-in-one shampoo/soap/body wash bar
Olive oil soap bar
Salt of the Earth travel-sized deodorant
2x folding toothbrushes
2x disposable razors
Mini nail clippers
Spare glasses in case (that’s both ‘in a case’ and ‘just in case’! I’ve always been fearful of broken glasses whilst away from home as the extent of my short sightedness deems them an absolute necessity. FreeToBeZ once accidentally flung my prescription glasses overboard on a ferry from Motril to Al Hoceima after whipping her hand up to point at something. They RIP in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, this is definitely one of my more sensible packing policies.)
(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)
First Aid bag (small plastic bag stored inside toiletry bag):
5x individually wrapped antibacterial wipes
Individually wrapped plasters of various sizes
Paracetamol (just a few to get by as these can be easily purchased at my destination)
2 packs anti-diarrhoea tablets
6x sachets rehydration treatment
2x wound dressing pads and first aid tape
Small roll cotton wool
First Aid guide leaflet
(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)
NHS maternity notes
Pad of paper and pens
3x muslin cloths (as quick-drying hand towels and also to use to cool down: drench in water and place over body if necessary).
2x plug adaptors
Mini speaker (gift for FreeToBeB)
Old smartphone, charger and accessories (gift for FreeToBeB)
Spare, foldable bag (48x31x15) for the return journey (this will count as one of our main cabin bags on the way back if we decide/need to use it)
This is a small toddler backpack, dimensions approximately 31x25x16cm.
8 disposable nappies
Pack of toilet-training wet wipes (smaller pack than standard wet wipes)
Small changing mat
Spare, lightweight shoes (plastic, slip-ons)
3x thin short-sleeved tops
1x thin long-sleeved top
Hair fasteners (bobbles and hairclips)
Small soft toy
Paper, crayons and stickers
4x mini board books
‘Travelling treasure sack’ (a small bag which includes small trinkets found around our home such as old jewellery, crystals, coloured feathers, plastic rings, etc, to keep FreeToBeZ occupied with ‘new’ things).
This has three compartments and three small pockets, which makes it really practical for staying organised. Its dimensions are 30x20x20cm.
See-through bag of liquids/creams for presenting at security – 3x inhalers (asthma treatment); 100ml toothpaste; 100ml children’s sun lotion; 30ml antiseptic cream; 20ml Arnica cream; 10ml patchouli essential oil (my ‘perfume‘); 10ml tea tree essential oil (for First Aid kit and general antibacterial use); 20ml Rescue Remedy; 2x 50ml hand sanitising gel; 100ml handcream; 10ml lipbalm; empty 100ml spray bottle (for spritzing ourselves with water in the North African heat)
Travel documents in a plastic wallet – in here I keep our passports, plane boarding passes, coach or train tickets, accomodation documents (if applicable), EHIC cards, travel insurance documents, copies of our main passport ID pages, international driving permit, and a card of useful numbers in Morocco
Purse (emptied of loyalty cards and other such things that are useless on foreign soil; ideally restocked with cash)
Smartphone (including Kindle app full of potential reading material) and charger
Ipod, earphones and USB lead
Sunglasses (in their case)
USB stick (loaded with any work I need to do – in Morocco, I have the option of using an internet café or FreeToBeB’s notebook laptop)
Tangle Teezer hairbrush
2x packs of travel tissues
Plastic bags for rubbish, FreeToBeZ’s dirty clothes, etc.
PLASTIC CARRIER BAG
This will contain food and drink for the journey. It is certainly not packed 6 days in advance, but will consist of something like:
2 x 500ml bottles of water
2x small cartons fruit juice
Homemade sandwiches in sandwich bags (enough for lunch and a later snack)
4x packets of crisps
Packs of dried fruit
2x Kinder chocolate bars (FreeToBeZ’s favourite)
ON THE JOURNEY
To purchase in the departure lounge:
Mineral water for the plane journey – pricey, but not as pricey as on the plane!
I intend to bring enough snacks to take us right through the day, as we will be eating a main evening meal once we arrive in Marrakech (usually at a street-side restaurant in a suburban area where we eat a family-sized feast for all of about £4).
What I shall wear:
Underwear (this should go without saying, but you never know!)
Abdominal support band (3 pregnancies later . . . )
Thin, light, ankle-length summer dress
2x thin overtops / cardigans
Ankle boots (slip-on Doc Martens – practical, comfortable and hard-wearing for any walks or scrambling in the mountains we do).
Pouch sling (if FreeToBeZ wants to be carried on my hip for any distance)
What FreeToBeZ will wear:
Long-sleeved top (under dress)
Thin jumper or cardigan
Casual summer shoes (Clarks Doodles – nice and light but good for walking in due to being fastened up securely).
AT OUR DESTINATION
To give you more of an idea of how I’ve managed to keep our packing to a minimum, here is also a list of the things we will purchase on our first day in Marrakech (just from a local hanout – a general shop found in both urban and rural areas selling everything from loose pasta to women’s sanitary products):
Batteries (spares for camera, shaver, etc).
If you’re going to be somewhere that is inhabited by other people, there will always be a way to find most of what you need – or you’ll figure out the locals’ methods of surviving without the things we deem so ‘necessary’ in more privileged societies.
There are a number of other things that could be purchased at our destination if I wasn’t so principled (fussy?), and this includes toiletries such as sun lotion, toothpaste, shampoo and soap – you can find the standard brands of many of these things in many parts of the world, but you won’t necessarily find your favourite natural and/or eco-friendly products.
However, there are numerous natural body care shops and argan oil cooperatives in Morocco where I could potentially find many toiletries free from harsh chemicals, and this is something I hope to explore further on my next trip (watch this space!). For now, I will take my usual Green People suncare product and handmade, SLS-free shampoo/soap bar.
As for those wedding invites . . . FreeToBeB is encouraging me to purchase a takchita, (a traditional Moroccan dress) to wear to the weddings, of which there will be plenty to choose from in the Marrakchi souks. We can also purchase any wedding gifts over there too.
Things I’m doing without
There are some items of ‘utility’ equipment that I have to make do without when going down the ‘hand luggage only’ route, namely my nail scissors and my trusty multi-tool which includes a penknife.
My multi-tool usually resides in my handbag – it usually comes everywhere with me (except on this trip!) and I feel quite lost without it. However, if it was truly necessary, I could always purchase another one over the other side.
I’ve also factored out swimwear and nightwear for this trip.
FreeToBeZ is young enough to get away with not being too modest if she wants to splash about in any water, and I’m not particularly bothered about donning my swimsuit whilst pregnant.
Full nightwear is rarely desirable during sweltering Moroccan summer nights, yet I’m taking daywear that can easily double up as nightwear, including a very thin but large neck scarf that can be used as a cover for FreeToBeZ if she is without clothing yet bothered by mosquitoes in the night (whilst Morocco isn’t a malaria risk zone and mosquito nets aren’t required, they can still be quite pesky for some people).
Obviously, we all have different preferences as to what we like and ‘need’ in our lives, and what feels necessary to our personal circumstances at the time, so these lists are just a guide to how I’m personally limiting our load. I can’t imagine many people need to be concerned with packing a maternity belt to ensure their comfort!
The important thing is that I look at these lists and can think of nothing I desperately need or want in addition to them – at least nothing that I won’t be going without anyway, irrespective of what I pack (I’m thinking of my bath and half of my usual kitchen equipment!).
My hope is that in sharing our personal packing plan, I’ve provided you with some ideas of how it is possible to travel with both a child and a truly light load.
Happy travelling lightly!
Please feel free to comment on this post below. Let me know if any of this has come in useful for you (or not!) or if perhaps there’s anything you’d cut back further or substitute?
Next week: depending on both inspiration and an internet connection, I will be blogging live from Morocco next week 🙂
A beautiful shot of the waterfalls at Ouzoud in the Middle Atlas Mountains.
Visiting these falls is a really refreshing experience after spending time amidst the dry and parched landscape that much of Morocco has to offer. The river that feeds these falls (Oued El Abid) is a delight to see when, for much of the year, many of the bridges you will cross whilst on the road in Morocco straddle nothing more than a woefully dry riverbed.
I loved capturing the elements meeting here, the pocked rock of the earth acting as a container for the other three elements. In many esoteric fields of thought, the place that the elements meet is thought to be a place of spirit. From my point of view, this photo is certainly a symbol of connection to something ‘greater than’; at the time of taking it, I was on an adventure of going wherever spirit led me.
If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.
I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.
There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.
If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.
This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .
1) Prepare Your Self
Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.
I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).
I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.
I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.
If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!
Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.
Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).
2) The Group Mind
Travel as a group.
Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.
The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.
Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.
3) Be Spontaneous
Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.
I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.
Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.
4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!
I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…
Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!
Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…
Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).
Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.
If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.
By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!
Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.
5) Must have a GSOH
I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.
I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.
I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.
I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.
Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.
I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.
Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.
6) Blue Sky Thinking
Turn holiday time into adventure time!
For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.
I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.
Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.
However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.
There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!
Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.
CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.
Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).
Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.
I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉
7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink
I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.
However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.
I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.
Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!
It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.
Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.
I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.
8) Be a Cheapskate
Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.
Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.
Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.
Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.
Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).
As with all things, trust your intuition.
That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).
Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.
If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.
I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.
9) Slow Down
Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.
Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.
If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.
I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.
I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.
Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.
10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .
. . . is an amazing way to view the world!
Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.
Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.
Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?
Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.