Friday, May 24, 2024

Moroccan Diary: An Unforgettable Trip to Marrakech

A week in Marrakech becomes a lifetime memory for 14 Boca area women

At first I wasn’t sure if it was jet lag or the sense that we were in a waking dream: Arabic road signs, men in tribal robes riding mopeds, women veiled in exotic hijabs, jewel-toned tiles and latticed walls casting shadows in the high desert’s early evening light. A haunting call to prayer rose in the distance.

We were here. We were in Marrakech, Morocco.

There were 14 of us, women from the Boca Raton area, some longtime friends, some new to one another, who embarked on this trip to experience Morocco at the invitation of our mutual friend, Denise Alman, and to visit her dear friend, Maryam Montague, humanitarian and feminist, author and innkeeper, who has co-founded Project Soar, a movement to empower teenage girls that is based in Marrakech. And it was Maryam who opened all the doors, starting with those of her inn, Peacock Pavilions.

Peacock Pavilions (which helps support Project Soar) is an artisanal hand-built luxury hotel in a private olive grove on eight acres just outside the city. The last of our group to arrive, we were swept past a bougainvillea-walled entrance and invited to join the others already in the dining tent. We walked past a pool adrift in floating rose petals, past exotic hanging lanterns, past the bungalows tucked amid olive trees. The rest of our group who had arrived earlier in the day was already finishing dinner with our dark-haired host in her white caftan—who seemed to materialize from the long royal tables to greet us with a warm hug.

I knew instantly this would be a week I would never forget.

The medina and small boutiques in Marrakech are renowned for their shopping opportunities, with everything from spices and rugs to clothing and talismans. (Photography by LuAnn Warner-Prokos

First of all, Montague, sporting an embroidered “Wild Feminist” leather jacket, is the Pied Piper of Marrakech. She led us day to day throughout the city, from ancient markets to the dusty foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Each day began with inspirational cards and our private intentions for the other journey we would harbor, a spiritual one, the one that always seems to emerge in a real travel experience.

We followed her to the nonprofit Project Soar she established to empower young Moroccan girls—and shift the culture in the process. We followed her through the raucous zigzag of the old medina, past baskets brimming with spices, hanging rugs and silver and tin and leather, and bins of vegetables and talismans of all kinds.

We waltzed past guards in red fezzes and long, buttoned coats into courtyards filled with fragrant flowering citrus trees at La Mamounia and the king’s own Royal Mansour, touring legendary hotels most people only dream about.

She led us through the desert-lush gardens of Jardin Marjorelle and the cobalt “Marjorelle” villa, Yves Saint-Laurent’s vacation home purchased in the 1980s, followed by tours of the Berber and YSL museums. That day, we all decided we decided we wanted to be French. Very French.

And most nights we gathered back at the lavishly embroidered dining tent at Peacock Pavilions, removing our shoes, scrambling to get a seat near Maryam or her architect-husband Chris Redecke, ready to hear more about their adventures and their mission, with dinners served in traditional Moroccan tagines with native wines, the stories going late into the night. These were the long days where this group of women started becoming more than friends, or “Peacock Pals,” as we now call one another, differences and discussions dissolving into a shared experience, making memories that would follow us home.

Spices at Chef Tarik’s Atelier de Cuisine (Photography by LuAnn Warner-Prokos)

One of my favorites was the day Maryam took us out of the city and into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, just miles from the edge of the Sahara, to have a “nomadic experience” and ride a camel. The night before our excursion, we were reminded by Maryam’s husband, Chris, that a camel’s knees are double-jointed, so we should wait for two lurches—the first one, forward; the second one, upright. Which I kept in mind as our guides emerged, in long Marjorelle blue tunics and sun hats. They had identical blue-and-black scarves for each of us, which they wound into very glamorous turbans inspired by the Berber nomads.

Once we lurched up to standing, my roommate Laura Rutenis announced that her camel’s name was Marilyn Monroe because of her long eyelashes; they were spectacular. Mine was promptly dubbed Maxine, because I think she likely smoked, was maybe older than the others, and was very “take charge”—she kept trying to lead while tethered to the center of the camel strand. Marilyn Monroe managed to sneeze all over our friend Ann’s black pants. Ann was a great sport, but her pants will likely always need a good soak.

Still, I have this picture of us: Fifteen women slowly rocking across the dunes, our line of camels snaking across the terra cotta sand, against the cloudless blue sky, a winter shiver in the air.

A tea master at Chef Tarik’s Atelier de Cuisine (Photography by LuAnn Warner-Prokos)

Our trip was coming to a close.

As I remember that day, I know Maryam Montague’s Pied Piper music is playing for another group now, and our “Pals” have all returned to our own lives. But I think most of us continue to follow many of the things we learned in the transformational Red City in the vortex. We learned that travel with girlfriends is a bonding opportunity like no other; it’s a way to share experiences that open doors to seeing people in a different light.

We recently gathered for a post-voyage reunion. We shared photos made into glossy coffee table books and gifts of evil-eye protectors, and Denise presented us all with bracelets of symbolic peacock feathers. Our potluck included recipes for ways to use the tagines we all now own, and for the most incredible stuffed cauliflower on earth.

Janet Little with camel friends

We recalled the breakfast every morning at Peacock Pavilions—and the small folded pieces of paper in our coffee cups before we filled them, our quotes to start the day and to share with one another. One of my favorites was by Dele Olanubi and said, “I wish to live a life that causes my soul to dance in my body.”

How will your soul dance?

If I can be so bold as to offer advice, I would say to start packing. Gather your girlfriends over a glass of wine and dream. Where would you go? While I can highly recommend the crazy medina of Marrakech, more than that, I highly recommend any destination with your girlfriends. Don’t wait; Say “yes” to fun! It’s a gift to yourself you will never regret.

This story is from our September/October 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

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