Over the past month, I’ve been craving an escape from Europe. The winter chill and grey skies have proven a little too much for my sun-loving skin; and the cities, while incredibly charming, have become all too familiar. So, when my husband, Ben, proposed a quick stint in Morocco before our final dash to the UK, I was all for it. Many avid travellers seem to champion this country as one of their favourites (including my husband), and I couldn’t wait to see if Morocco lived up to its exciting reputation.
With limited time up our sleeves, Ben and I wanted to taste Moroccan culture the easiest and most authentic way possible. We jumped online and discovered a little homestay in the quiet village of Imlil. With its views of the Atlas Mountains, including North Africa’s famous giant Mount Toubkal, this private lodge was bound to offer peaceful and revitalising experience, if nothing else.
By the time we arrived in Imlil, the sun had waved goodbye to another day and the locals were out to play. A young man, called Hassan, spotted our Land Rover and raced over to offer directions – as luck would have it, he was from our homestay. Hassan guided us to a blink-n-miss-it dirt track and sent us on our merry way up a mountain. Meanwhile, he proceeded to take the off-road route, ascending the steep slope like a veteran mountain goat to ensure we didn’t veer off track.
When Ben and I finally reached our destination, Hassan stood waiting in the car park with a smile on his face and a tiny bead of sweat upon his brow. He threw our hefty bags onto his strong shoulders and beckoned us towards a dark, narrow path. Stumbling our way through a maze of dusty corridors, cob houses and makeshift steps in the pitch black, we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into...
Ben and I needn’t have worried though. While Moroccan homes look humble on the outside, they're packed with personality on the inside. As we entered our new abode, removed our travel-weary boots and swapped them for traditional goatskin slippers, we were instantly transported to another world – one filled with comfort, colour, culture and curiosity.
Following Hassan along a path of mix-matched carpets, Ben and I finally reached the back terrace, where a vibrant pre-dinner picnic awaited us. Our first taste of the local culture was an interactive lesson on Moroccan tea (Maghrebi mint tea). The locals' take on this global beverage was like nothing I’d ever experienced. A generous wodge of green tea leaves was brewed at the perfect temperature until it was time to add fresh mint leaves and a mountain of sugar. The piping hot concoction was then poured – once, twice, thrice – from acrobatic heights to create a head of bubbles on the perfect cup of Moroccan tea. Man, it was sweet! I suddenly realised why having teeth was a serious achievement in this part of the world.
As Ben and I relaxed into our miniature stools and chilled out with self-made cuppas, we could hear the village coming to life around us. Kids were reciting the Quran at a nearby night school while cats waited in the shadows and wailed for food. Everything was going off.
The experience certainly set the tone for our stay. When Ben and I arrive at a hotel, we usually rush to our room and remain in our antisocial blogger bubble until we’re ready to hit the streets. In this Imlil home, we were kept from our boudoir until we’d indulged in a customary tea ceremony and friendly chat. It felt like we were living with family or friends, not strangers.
By the time dinner came around, we were joined by the homestay’s manager, Lachan. He was born at the property, along with his father and grandfather, and rarely travelled further than the outskirts of Imlil. Considering the trip we were on (a 50,000km drive from Singapore to London), Ben and I found his modest way of life fascinating. Despite doing pretty much the same thing day in and day out, Lachan and the local villagers appeared to be perfectly happy. Every adult had a special role in the community - a skill or craft they'd become an expert at. As a result, they enjoyed a clear sense of purpose and significance. Neighbours treated each other like extended family members, an approach which seemed long forgotten in many Western cities. After a mere 24 hours in Imlil, I could see why Lachan remained loyal to his hometown.
While the dining table was covered with a wild assortment of ceramic pots, each promising to deliver the ultimate Moroccan feast, Lachan went on to explain the philosophy of his homestay. “We only advertise online. This means we attract guests who’ve actively searched out an authentic homestay experience, not drive-by traffic and people who won’t appreciate the cultural opportunities we offer”.
It was wonderful to hear how such a small operation lived out its unwavering commitment to “the customer experience”. Only four rooms were on offer to create an intimate atmosphere and ensure every guest felt taken care of. Lachan said he often blocks family bookings if a couple is in residence (and vice versa), so guests can be themselves and completely relax. Evidently, money wasn't the homestay's primary motivation. First and foremost, Lachan and his family wanted to provide a welcoming, genuine and memorable insight into Moroccan village life.
As the lids were lifted off our sizzling tagines, the conversation quickly turned to food. Everything before us was homemade and prepared using local ingredients. Corn soup, fresh olives, warm flatbread, curious condiments – Ben and I were in gastronomic heaven. By the end of the feast, all of our senses had been nourished. If only we'd had more time to take up Lachan’s offer of a cooking class.
The insights about Moroccan culture didn’t stop in the food aisle. Ben and I were also taught a few things about Islamic culture and its influence on Moroccan life. For instance, when Lachan entered the dining room, he didn't shake Ben's hand first as most hoteliers would in non-Muslim countries. Instead, he took Hassan's hand because his colleague was the first person to his right. According to Islamic principles, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the presence of a president or a celebrity, you always work from right to left when shaking people’s hands. I liked this idea – it levelled everyone out and avoided the possibility of bruised egos.
The next morning, Ben and I were in for a real treat. Hassan had organised a visit to the family barn followed by a mule ride through the village. As with many country towns, the local animals were viewed purely as workers and food producers, not pets. So, none of them had names. “Cow #1”, “Cow #2” – that’ll do. We told Hassan about our pug, Chaos, who was back in Australia. He seemed find it strange that we missed dressing her up in “people clothes”, taking her to the beach for swimming lessons and blowing raspberries on her fat belly. Come to think of it, people back home think that's odd too!
Last but not least, Ben and I were adorned in traditional Moroccan clothing for our parting tea ceremony. Ben wore a hooded cloak (Djellaba) which made him look more like a hot, young Obi Wan Kenobi than a local. I was doused in technicolour garments until I felt like a Moroccan princess. It was a holiday dream come true.
By the time our homestay had come to an end, Ben and I were convinced it was the best way to explore new cultures. Living with a local family gave us a precious glimpse into Moroccan life along with a chance to "get amongst it" and ask questions until our minds were buzzing with new knowledge. This interactive, off-the-beaten-track style of travel reignited our passion for adventure, blogging and photography. It was significantly more fulfilling than the passive sightseeing and predictable mass-market experiences we'd been sticking to in Europe. So, in 2016, I'll be re-evaluating my bucket list and pursuing a grittier, more hands on approach to travel. Homestays are just the beginning.
For more information on this homestay and to book, click here Imlil Atlas Mountain Homestay
'Happiness Hunter' Sophee Southall is the writer, photographer and social media addict behind the travel blog Sophee Smiles - 'Explore. Experiment. Find your Happy Place.'
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