I recently wrote this piece for the Topo Designs’ website, and I thought I’d share it here too. Loved Morocco and can’t wait to go back! Enjoy…
Megan Harrod is based in Park City, Utah and spends her winter months traveling around the world telling stories about the best alpine skiers in the world (for the U.S. Ski Team). As for the rest of her time... it's spent on a variety of continents, thriving on the energy of people, sunshine and mountains. She works, plays and hugs hard and has a charming way of not taking things too seriously. Follow her travels at vagablondebasecamp.com or on Instagram.
"I think I'll go to Morocco when the season ends," I told my friends and colleagues. "Be careful," they said. I hear those two words a lot… definitely more than the average person. And probably much more than the average gal.
My obsession for exploring began during childhood when my family would travel around the midwest going to ski races. But I really got hooked when I was 18 years old and traveled internationally for the first time in my life. That time, it was to Sweden. From then on, I was addicted. First it was study abroad in England. Then, ten years ago, I left my stable life in Minneapolis for an international job opportunity in Prague, Czech Republic. Rewind to five years ago, when I left a conventional, married life and took this job traveling around the world for about seven months of the year. Four years ago I shaved my head and traveled to India. Alone.
Most of my significant travels have been just that — alone. I think I have my midwife mother to thank for teaching me a vital lesson in the art of defying convention. I'm pretty good at it. I'm one of the very few humans I know — especially at my age (36) — that feels comfortable living out of a duffle bag for months on end. Ok, not just comfortable… much more than comfortable. I thrive on the road.
This winter season's travels ended in Soldeu, Andorra, a place I had never explored before. A tiny, independent principality nestled in between France and Spain in the insanely beautiful Pyrenees mountains, Andorra was the perfect place to end a long season on the road. More than that, though, was its proximity to new territories for me to explore. I've always wanted to go to Morocco. So I decided now was as good a time as any. After traveling to Grenada, Spain where I received some guidance from friends to travel to a small surftown called Essaouira, I decided that I'd skip the big city vibes in Marrakech and head to the coast instead.
For those of you who are fans of Game of Thrones, Essaouira is the real-life Astapor, or "Slaver's Bay," known for its unsullied inhabitants who Daenerys Targaryen sets free. I didn't know much about it, but I had heard the surfing was good, so I was in. I have to admit, after hearing friend after friend caution me about traveling alone, I naturally felt uneasy.
I didn't necessarily start to question my decision, but I did start to worry a little more. My partner, who is always supportive of my adventures, asked me why I always decided to travel to strange places solo. He loves my curious mind, but since we've been together he's seen me travel to India and Morocco alone, as well as all over Europe. Of course, if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. No fancy hotels with western vibes...I was going to stay in the medina (old town, walled in portion of the city), which is protected by 18th century seafront ramparts called the "Skala de la Kasbah." I looked on Airbnb and found a gem. The owner of the spot connected me with a taxi driver, who would pick me up in Marrakech at the airport, and drive me directly to Essaouira. It'd be a three hour taxi drive to Morocco's Atlantic coast, where the port city sits. And it would only be 60 USD.
As my departure date neared, I started getting nervous and even though I told everyone in my network that I'd be OK, I began to think things like, "What if I fall asleep during the cab ride and wake up in the middle of nowhere, in a bad situation?!" In response to my concerned friends and family, I'd remain calm and simply say, "I'm a mindful traveler. I don't put myself in bad situations, and I don't operate the same way I do when I'm in comfortable surroundings. I'm less talkative, I don't interact with strangers...it's just a different version of me, which can be challenging sometimes - but it's worth it for the things I'm able to see and experience." Then, of course, I'd follow it up with, "And, because I'm so mindful when I travel solo, if something happens to me, it's because it was meant to happen to me at this moment, meaning it would be just as likely to happen in Park City, Utah or Essaouira, Morocco." They'd laugh, but I really believe that.
I arrived in Marrakech with no issues. My taxi driver greeted me, and offered to carry my pack. He was kind. He only spoke French and Arabic, but he was warm and inviting. We got into his car, and I soaked in my surroundings. At one point, he pulled up to a market and got out of the car. I sunk down a bit in my seat, and made sure my hat covered my platinum blonde hair. I watched him interact with vendors, and then come back to the car about 10 minutes later with a bag of fresh mandarin oranges to share with me. He also shared a smile with me. I was safe.
As we approached Essaouira, we drove past western hotels and spas, and drove up to the medina. I was met by the host, who also only spoke Arabic and French, and a short man with a luggage cart and no teeth. "Bonjour!" they said with a tentative smile. I followed by host through the small winding alleys of the medina to a door I was almost sure I'd get lost trying to find by myself later, and into my place, located near Bab Marrakech. I'd normally opt for a private room in a hostel, but in Morocco, there are numerous riads, which are traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an interior garden or courtyard. Some of them are run as bed and breakfasts, and some are rented as entire apartments on Airbnb. Mine was perfect.
As I began to settle in, I still felt uneasy in my foreign surroundings. I stayed in that first night, hesitant to walk the small streets of the medina alone. The next morning, I woke up and explored the city. I'd soon realize that I had nothing to be afraid of. The people were kind and I was in love with strolling through the markets in the small streets solo. I found that I felt especially safe at night, because when it was dark I blended in. No one could see my fair skin or blonde hair, and I could just melt into the surroundings. I visited every quirky cafe imaginable, walked to the ocean, signed up for some surf lessons, explored the Tuareg jewels and Moroccan Kilim rugs, listened to the sweet sound of musicians by the port, and more. It truly was magical.
The call to prayer is oddly beautiful. When I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, I felt the same way about it. There are very few Moroccan women to be found in the streets, while the vendors and shop owners are almost exclusively men. During the call to prayer, the streets are much quieter, and it's also an experience walking the streets just after the call to prayer ends...I was a solo white female in a sea of local males. But yet, I felt safe. Sure, there are occasional whistles and invitations into shops, but I'd just look ahead and pretend to not speak English or French. In that way, I don't feel like it was any more aggressive than many European cities I've traveled to, especially in parts of Italy and Spain.
Essaouira is a town so small, you run into familiar faces walking the streets, even after just a couple of days. I met a friend from Senegal dressed in colorful cotton cloths with batik-inspired printing, whose grandfather made artwork from fallen butterflies. After the third time seeing him in the medina, I invited him to have a coffee with me at Mandala, the cafe I had frequented that week. Another time, I walked by a group of Moroccan surfer boys and one said, "You dropped something." I looked down. He said "You dropped your smile. Your smile is a frown. Turn it around." I ran into him again three days later when I surfed. It's a magical town of artists, musicians, hippies and wandering souls. It's no surprise Jimi Hendrix once frequented the streets.
After I had met an Italian artist couple on Airbnb who has lived in Essaouira for four years, and doing a tour with them, I ended up ditching by Marrakech plans and staying in Essaouira for two additional days. It was a less cerebral trip, which is something I was really looking forward to at the end of a long, busy season. My new friends, Sergio and Arianna, helped me find beautiful rings, a reputable place to buy local handmade rugs, woven years ago as family heirlooms by women in the High Atlas Mountains, and even hosted me, cooked a perfect Italian pasta dinner for me, and fed me the best espresso in the morning.
Essaouira is a little slice of heaven I'd encourage everyone to experience. It's safe to travel as a solo female, the art and seafood are both to die for, the surf is supreme, and it's the only place I've seen where camels and surfers coexist on the beach.
Here are my top five Essaouira travel tips:
DO stay in the medina, and while you're there go out on a limb and try an Arab spa for a massage and hammam. It is quite the experience. I tried a spot around the corner from my Airbnb that I stumbled upon day one when I was lost, called Arab Spa.
DON'T fret if you're a solo female traveler. Just keep your wits about you as you normally would. Do a surf lesson or a culture walk early in your stay, so you can meet some locals and get acquainted.
DO dine in all of the places. Here are a few of my favorites: for coffee - Mandala, The Coast, Tara Cafe, Cafe Megaloft, for food - Le Cosy (treat yo self!),Triskala, Ocean Vagabonde (after surfing!), for drinks at sunset - Taros Cafe Restaurant (kind of touristy, but worth it for the view)
DO buy goods from local artisans. There are amazing local artists and you can find very fair prices on some really quality pieces. I'd recommend going on this culture walk to get the lay of the land early in your trip with Arianna and Sergio - they're lovely hosts.
DON'T hang out in the jewish quarter at night. It's totally fine during the day, but not the best place to hang after dark.
What's next for me? Trips to Maui, Prague and New Zealand this summer, but I've been dreaming about a solo trip to Nepal for quite some time. Only time will tell.