Bring Your Baby to Morocco! (Weeks 19-20, Feb 4 and 11, 2019)
Updated: Mar 1, 2019
I have never been anywhere where people love babies as much as Morocco.
The medina in Marrakech is just as crowded and chaotic as forecasted. Motorbikes whiz by inches from you in both directions (“walk left, walk right -- just don’t walk middle” the man who guided us to our riad said). There are no playgrounds at all in the city as far as we’ve been able to divine. The play areas that there are at mall food courts and involve blinking lights and shooter games. I have not seen a high chair anywhere since we arrived.
Yet for all the lack of baby-friendly infrastructure, Moroccans are the most baby friendly people I have ever come across. We walk down the street and shopkeepers snap their fingers and smile to get WP’s attention. Security guards in museums waggle their hands to make her smile. Waiters kiss her hands and pick her up. The other day a girl walking down the street with her mother stopped to hug WP from behind. I only realized what was happening when I felt a tug and looked down and saw I had another child attached to me.
In Italy, where we also spent two months, they do love children. But I found it was almost always the women who interacted with WP. In Marrakech, the souks are dominated by men. Almost all the shopkeepers and those selling their wares are men. Most of the waiters are men. So I was not expecting such an outpouring of affection. Serious faces crack into smiles when WP goes by.
And this makes all the difference. The medina is crowded, the sights, sounds, and smells (often unfiltered exhaust from motorbikes) can feel overwhelming. Ducking into a shop is an invitation to negotiate, go about it wrong or start too low and some of the men have no problem shaming you out of their shop.
It would be easy to imagine this being all the more stressful with a child. And it’s true that when Mike and I go out without WP (a friend’s cousin babysits -- hooray) we can sit calmly in a restaurant or wander more slowly through a souk. But no one is blowing kisses at us, and I kind of miss it.
We rented a private riad in a touristy neighborhood in the medina (it’s big enough to have distinct neighborhoods). A riad is a traditional Moroccan home that is set up around a central courtyard. There are no external windows, ours shares it’s ultra-thick concrete walls with other riads on all sides, so the light and air comes from the fact that there’s no roof in the middle. There is an indoor living room and kitchen on either side of the courtyard, and two bedrooms overlooking the courtyard on the first floor (American second floor, I’ve actually converted over to thinking of it as floors 0, 1, etc -- I’ll have to convert back when we return). The central courtyard has our dining table and plenty of room for WP to run around. I love that we can be sitting in the covered living room and she can toddle back and forth between inside and outside. There is a terrace at the top with covered seating and more space to play.
Aside from the major hazards like tons of ungated stairs and all the floors being super-hard stone and concrete, it’s a great place for WP to play. Luckily she’s at the stage of walking where falls are rare and on her bum, so we’re not so worried about major head bumps. So mostly she gets to have a big outdoor space to mess around without having to leave the house.
It’s nice because it means when we do go out we can go for a long walk with her in the carrier and she can still get her energy out at home. We also have started carrying her in our arms for shorter trips so we can put her down to walk in shops and on quiet streets. The other day though she lost her mind in a rug shop, throwing herself back and forth like a nut, so it’s not always the most conducive to our goals.
We have developed a nice relaxed rhythm here. It was shockingly affordable to hire a housekeeper/cook for the month, so we did. So we wake around 8am, and she puts out breakfast at 9am. At 10am we head out for an adventure. A museum, or a sight of some kind. Maybe a shopping destination (the slipper souk, the rug souk, the fair trade collective). We come back around 12p and WP eats lunch, then goes down for a nap. We tap on our laptops or read on the terrace. Our housekeeper, Hind, serves Mike and me lunch at 2p while WP sleeps. She’s up around 3:30p, and has a snack. Then we go out again - most days with WP but occasionally our friend’s cousin comes to babysit. We’re usually on our own for dinner and so we pick up food or make something simple, then WP goes to bed at 8p and we tap away or read some more. (Of course sometimes this tapping away is me working, and a few hours per week I’m coaching entrepreneurs or on conference calls.)
I know the sun and the warm but mild temperatures have a lot to do with how relaxing this feels. And the fact that Hind is an incredible cook and keeps the place clean and organized even when we’re a bit of a mess. Europe feels so far away, culturally, temporally. And yet if we had to get back to London, we could be there on a direct flight in a few hours.
It’s a good reminder to me that while there are challenging things about the thought of further exploring Northern Africa -- so long chain grocery stores on every corner, we don’t speak Arabic or French, the streets aren’t stroller-friendly, the haggling can be uncomfortable -- it is doable, particularly when you have a tiny personal tie in to make things more accessible.
We went this week to the High Atlas Mountains. A college friend studied abroad in Morocco and remained close with his homestay brother from the village of Aguer Sioual, who now runs a little homestay style lodge. Honestly, the place is so inexpensive that I would probably have passed over it if I were choosing a place to stay myself. But at Jordan’s recommendation (he had brought his two year old there a couple years back) we arranged a night with Mohamed. I am so, so glad we did. The view was astounding, and it was amazing to see the Moroccan countryside. We stopped a total tourist trap women’s argan oil collective on the way up and loved seeing how the nuts are roasted and ground. We bought argan oil with geranium for our hair. We marveled at the landscape and the small towns on the way. And then we arrived at the traditional Berber stone village. The car could only get part way up the hill, we walked the rest of the way to the lodge up steep, uneven stone steps.
Since we have our own riad in Marrakech, we hadn’t had the experience of being guests yet in Morocco. It was amazing to be welcomed with tea, to have Mohamed’s girls play with WP, and to just generally have a trusted person to host us. We had a blast visiting the new women’s cooperative in town formed by the local women to try to turn their home hobby of rug weaving into a commercially viable business. We bought two little rugs and were showered with gifts of beaded jewelry. WP’s name is hard to pronounce in other languages, so we shortened it to one of its possible nicknames “Mina”, which is also an Arabic name, and the village was thrilled. I say the village because after the visit to the rug cooperative everywhere we went it seemed someone was shouting “Mina!” and giving her a hug or a smile.
Before we came I was unsure about our decision to spend two months in Morocco, but now that we’re here it seems obviously right to continue to explore the country. Tomorrow we go to Fes!