Joe Harrison, a third year human geographer, recently returned from a development geographies fieldtrip to Morocco. A keen photographer and stargazer, he blogs about his experiences in the field and shares some of his own personal highlights.
My name is Joe Harrison, a third year human geographer. As I find questions of development and tourism interesting and I’d never to been to Africa before, I seized the opportunity to attend the third year development geographies fieldtrip: a week of Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains and Aït Benhaddou. These locations could hardly contrast more. Marrakech is probably the busiest place I’ve ever been, yet the Atlas Mountains was the furthest I’ve been from modern life- devoid of light pollution and silent at night. (Apart from dogs barking and the call to prayer!)
All the guides and reviews I’d read prior to the trip described how busy and hectic Marrakech was. I was skeptical and didn’t really believe it could be as illustrated. I probably should’ve listened. The minibus stopped next to a roundabout, we were given our things and were plunged into mayhem! The traffic was everywhere; all over the roads, all over the pavements, it was crazy. On top of this, the many traders were all shouting and trying to get us to buy their products.
Once on the narrower streets, I thought we’d escaped the madness but I was wrong. I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder to avoid being run over by one of the many mopeds zipping about. All of my senses were under siege. Getting to our riad (a traditional Moroccan style hotel) on that first night was a relief but by the end of the trip, it seemed normal to have people waving teapots at you and shouting, or to have mopeds missing you by a matter of inches!
After a day of fieldwork in 30 degree heat, I enjoyed sitting down at one of the many cafes dotted around Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square). Many of these had rooftop terraces where you could just sit and take the area in with a mint tea or a café au lait and watch the mayhem unfold below. You really got a sense of the competition occurring below. Every seller was fighting for sales. It was almost the sort of scene you’d expect to see in a film. It only got busier as the evening wore on. By nightfall, the square was teeming with activity. Food stalls offering stunning food were available in the square itself, and on the edges, cafes and restaurants offered food too. The tajines were stunning. Their £5 price tag made them even better!
Our time in Marrakech was split by a few days in the Atlas Mountains. After a long bus journey, we stepped out into peace, quiet and very fresh, exhaust fume free air. However, as our lecturers had told us to layer up for the cold (apparently it was snowing up there last year), I found myself promptly peeling my thermals off as it was absolutely sweltering. Better safe than sorry I suppose. We then started the hike to the Riad in Tighza. The area was stunning. We were walking above a valley cut by a river through the middle. We passed houses, donkeys, many women doing their laundry in the river and a school, before finally reaching our destination. I was looking forward to the fieldwork observation and interviews we were to undertake in the village and nearby market in Telouet the next day. Before this then however, the night sky had a surprise in store for me… I’d been trying to experience dark skies free of light pollution for ages. I’d failed in the Peak District as Sheffield and Manchester light up the entire sky. I’d also failed in rural Scotland, as (surprise surprise) it was cloudy and raining during my visit! The Atlas Mountains provided me with the opportunity I’d been waiting for. As the sun set, I was stunned. The stars just kept coming. The sky looked 3D. Shooting stars were common. I’d set my camera up with a wide angle lens to continuously take 30 second exposures. I then stitched all the photos taken together. A large group of us slept on the roof under the stars on the last night of our stay in the Atlas. That sky is one thing I will never forget about the fieldtrip.
After a few days in the mountains, it was back to Marrakech, via Aït Benhaddou. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was interesting to see traditional southern Moroccan architecture, even if the buildings had been rehabilitated and perhaps weren’t that original anymore. It looked stunning from a distance, surrounded by palm trees. We had to cross a small river on sand bags to get to Aït Benhaddou itself. It was nice to get some shade and protection from the blazing sun above, and wandering about the narrow streets was an interesting experience. After an hour or so of observation inside Aït Benhaddou, it was time for food in the village we’d parked the minibuses in. As the area had developed based on tourism, there was a nice selection of pizza, ice cream and possibly even kebabs. I didn’t venture close enough to the takeaway selling the latter to check if my eyes had deceived me. It was weird being able to get these foods with such exotic scenery around you. You could look one way and see Aït Benhaddou surrounded by palm trees, yet just behind you could be a pizza joint. I stuck to tajine rather than pizza, but it wasn’t half as nice as the stunning food we’d had in Tighza and the Atlas. This part of the fieldtrip aimed to get us thinking about the effects of tourism on Morocco.
The trip in all, was great. I experienced hands-on fieldwork, the best night sky I’ve ever seen and a stunning country. Anyone with the opportunity to go on this fieldtrip should definitely seize it.