Several years ago I visited Moscow, a city on the cusp of east and west, its buildings a blend of two continents, a European capital from which a thin yet continuous metal thread stretches all the way to the heart of China. It is a city therefore singularly evocative not for what it contains within but for what lies without, a realisation which led me to the following till now unshaken belief: it is the potency of the human imagination that caters half the excitement and a good deal of the motivation of travel. It is not being dropped into the heart of a place, but just on its edge that tingles the senses; it is not being given a bellyful of new culture but a tantalising taste that animates the feet to keep carrying us forward.
Last week, I travelled to Morocco: a new country for me and a new continent. Perhaps it is because my imagination had not yet spun a vision of Morocco – beyond warrens of dark oppressive markets, where according to the hyperbolic testimony of previous visitors the virtue of every foreign female is tested – that my first thought as I disembarked the plane and stepped on to the sun-baked tarmac was not “I’m in Morocco” but simply: “I’m in Africa”.
And then the next thought: the ground beneath me stretches out from this small extreme corner and expands into a vast continent of sand and jungle and ancient culture and poverty and beauty, of dripping heat and cracked dry soil, and above all, of bright, burning, blinding sunshine.
Whether this simplistic and naïve vision of Africa beyond Morocco in any way relates to the truth of the land, I must discover on future journeys. But as for Morocco itself, in one, all-too-brief week’s visit it surpassed all expectations, and any wild and exotic fancies I could have formed. In fact, the only preconception I had – of bumping, bustling markets teeming with wandering hands – proved false. I found the men of the Marrakesh souks to be as they were everywhere we went: indomitably friendly and helpful. From soaring mountain ranges to lush palm-filled valleys, from holding snakes in ancient mud-walled villages to star-spotting from Saharan sands, Morocco blessed me with one of the happiest holidays I have ever enjoyed. And in doing so it confounded my Moscow-born beliefs: Morocco may be the slender edge of a large continent, but it holds a continent’s worth of treasures.
My first venture into Africa was therefore more than I ever hoped for; I now only hope my next will not be too far in the future.