Saharan Soccer: Traveling with Children in Morocco
By Cass Erikson
"You're taking your child where?! Are you crazy?"
That was the astonished reaction of just about everyone I told about my plan to take my 10-year old son on vacation to Morocco. Their eyes would widen and I could tell they were concerned for both our safety and our sanity. But they didn't know the secret of Moroccans and children.
From the moment I proposed the idea, my son, Oliver, was enthralled. His head was swimming with visions of winding alleyways filled with turbaned carpet sellers, acrobats and musicians in the city squares, ancient castles made of sand and camels and sheiks in the Sahara.
As far as he was concerned, this was the land of fairytales more exotic than anything Disney could create and definitely more adventurous than a theme park. It hadn't taken much to persuade him that this was going to be a memorable trip. But convincing everyone else was a different matter altogether. In their minds, Morocco was unsafe for adults, let alone children.
This was an Arab country and it was in Africa, and their heads were filled with biased news articles and old horror stories of kidnappings, swindlings, disease and generalized ill-will. As my son can attest, they were dead wrong. Throughout our two-week journey from the Imperial cities of Fes and Marrakech to the dunes of the Sahara, he was treated like a desert prince by everyone he met.
Not only did he visit fabulous kasbahs and wander fragrant palmeraies, but he also learned history from the Roman ruins of Volubilis, perfected the fine art of haggling in the souks (often receiving a better deal than I did), developed a real taste for couscous (demanding I learn how to make it at home), and took to saying "shukran" instead of "thanks."
In Fes, he decided that navigating the old medina was harder than even the most difficult level of his favorite video game, but enjoyed getting lost. He marveled at every shop, watched craftsmen painting wooden furniture and laying zelige mosaics, and got a lesson in carving spinning tops from an ancient artisan who used a primitive, foot-pumped lathe.
In Marrakech, he spent several nights awed by the acrobats and storytellers of the Jemaa el Fna, determined to see each performance through to its bitter end. He touched the fanged cobra belonging a snake charmer and sampled various Moroccan foods from the evening vendors.
He became fast friends with a young Berber girl who giggled and blushed as she painted intricate henna patterns on his hands, and was "adopted" by her tattooed mother, who plied him with honey-soaked pastries as if he were a potential husband for her daughter.
Everywhere he went in these crowded, bustling cities of Morocco, people of all ages spoke kindly to him, took him by the hand and treated him as if he were one of their own children. This was astonishing to both him and me, but it soon became clear that Moroccans treasure children more than any caravan gold.
Children -- all children -- are blessings, and a foreign child is no different than any other. It also became obvious that by traveling with a child in Morocco, I was treated with more respect. Instead of being harassed or ogled, as had been my past solo experience, I was protected, catered to and bowed to.
In other words, I was not viewed as an "available" single female (the way most non male-accompanied Western women are viewed, married or not), but as a Mother, which is inviolable in Muslim culture.
Nowhere was our experience more dramatic than in the desert areas. In almost every village we explored, Oliver was invited to play soccer with the local boys while I drank tea with their mothers.
During breaks, the children would ask him about American movies and demand to receive English lessons, but even with the language barrier, I would look over to find them rolling in the sand and dirt, laughing and smiling like they understood each other perfectly.
Meanwhile, the women and I compared notes about marriage, sex and childrearing, as well as our hopes for the future of our children and for ourselves. Surprisingly, we shared many of the same experiences and expectations.
3-day Camel Trek
But the real highlight was the three-day camel trek we took in the dunes of Erg Chebbi. Oliver had never ridden a camel before, but took to it like a real Tuareg. He was king of all he could survey from his high perch: with his turban tied around his head, he was Aladdin and Ali Baba, a powerful sheik and Lawrence of Arabia.
When we made camp, he joined our young guides to climb the dunes and sandboard down them. He marveled at the changing colors of the dunes at sunset. His eyes sparkled as we told stories around the campfire and counted the brilliant stars at night.
And even when we made him wake up at dawn to watch the sunrise over the desert, he was enthusiastic and thrilled. Our guides also taught him how to care for his camel, how to saddle her and how to milk her. They even offered to sell her to him, and I was tempted to agree!
Of course, there were days he was too tired to do much sightseeing, and times he begged for ice cream and his Nintendo, but most of the time, he had more energy and exploratory verve than I did. when my feet ached from wandering the souks, he pushed me around the next corner only to discover some treasure I never would have found had we turned around.
My son has been the best at convincing all our dubious friends and relatives about the safety and fun of traveling en famille in North Africa. He still talks about the experience and can't wait to return. In fact, we are already planning another North African family adventure, this time to the pyramids of Egypt and the beaches and troglodyte villages of Tunisia: he is already training hard for those village soccer matches.