May 062009

They say that first impressions are important. That opinions are formed quickly, and, once formed, are very difficult to sway.

That’s as true when you’re visiting a new country as it is when you’re meeting new people. Your original experience of a place colours your perception of subsequent events. The better it is, the more you tend to enjoy your visit, and the better the impression of the country you take away when you leave.

Morocco and I had got off to a shaky start. The border crossing from Spain had been a nightmare-the worst I’ve ever experienced on this or any other continent. Then our accommodation turned out to be miles from the nearest town, in a moderate-to-advanced state of disrepair, and lacking most of the facilities listed when we’d booked it.

“Spacious, luxurious accommodation matched only by the warmth of the welcome” extolled the details on the web-page. They were right in one sense-the sullen, jaded staff matched the run-down appearance and atmosphere to a tee. “Shabby-sans-chic” was how I took to describing it as the week wore on.

We took a stroll to check out the pool. The grounds were pretty, but unkempt: gardens overgrown, tiles along the path cracked or missing. They were punctuated with impressive-looking fountains, now empty and idle. The funny thing about water-features is that they need water. Nothing dates a place quite as emphatically as a dry fountain.

From a distance the pool looked spectacular-a shimmering blue rectangle on an expansive deck of white tiles leading to the beach and the Mediterranean beyond. Lovely… until you took a closer look. Again, lack of maintenance let the pool area down, and the beach which looked so inviting, was strewn with all manner of rubbish. The pool wasn’t heated and was too cold to swim in for any length of time.

With things looking bleak on the accommodation front we decided to check out the nearby town of M’diq. At reception they told us the best way into town was to take a local bus on the road outside. Four buses sailed by without stopping, so packed that people hung out of their open doors, and we decided to flag down a passing taxi instead. That proved more difficult than anticipated, but eventually we all clambered into a dilapidated old Mercedes and made the short trip into town.

M’diq is a busy little town, it’s streets lined with tea-rooms, cafés, and hole-in-the-wall shops and stalls selling everything from freshly baked bread, pastries, snacks and spices to jewellery, leather goods, pottery, coffee, crafts and much more. When we arrived the street market was in full swing. There were people milling everywhere; it was at once fascinating and threatening-a completely alien culture, raw and undiluted, pushing me so far outside my comfort zone that I reverted to instinct: my only concern to keep the children safe.

They, of course, had no such concerns… and lapped up the new experience eagerly.

It took me longer than usual to adjust to the cultural upheaval, but over the course of the week I could feel Morocco-it’s culture and particularly it’s people-gradually winning me over. There were uncomfortable episodes, like getting hassled by touts outside the ancient entrance to the “medina” in Tetouan, or haggling with taxi drivers over a late-night fare, but the Moroccan people in general are so friendly, with a ready smile and willingness to help, that it’s impossible not to be won over by their charm.

At the start of the week I was wondering if Morocco would yield any highlights; in the end there were plenty. Sipping sweet mint-tea and watching the world go by on the streets of M’diq; a journey into the Rif mountains, to the marvellous little town of Chefchouen and the narrow blue-and-white streets of its ancient “medina”; but most of all it was amazing to see how readily the children adapted to, accepted and revelled in the new experiences thrown up by a culture so very different from our own.

Morocco as a destination has been far from plain sailing-but ultimately it has been rewarding on many different levels. Will we be back? Initially I didn’t think so, but as our week here draws to a close I can’t suppress the feeling that we probably will, and for longer next time.

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