I know a guy who insists that the only way to truly experience a country is to organise yourself a homestay. He feels that it’s homestays alone that enable us to understand how the average citizen of any particular country lives, and anything else is really just shallow surface tourism. I think we can all agree that this idea is unadulterated horseshit.
I’ve experienced two types of homestays in my travelling life. The first was in Japan, and was the more traditional variety in which you live in an environment that is supposed to be reminiscent of Japanese life 100 years ago. Sleeping on mats, tea ceremonies and what was definitely an inordinate amount of pressure to dress up in a kimono. It would be remiss not to mention the few things that made this experience not quite accurate. There’s the highly packaged and processed breakfast and the sound of the Japanese owners TV blasting soap operas through the paper walls at you for a start. Hardly indicative of the experience of an average Japanese citizen from any time period I would venture.
The other type is when you go and stay with someone who is actually a modern citizen of the country and therefore should give you the perfect experience of life in your chosen destination. But obviously that doesn’t work either. Anyone who invites you to stay with them is going to be on far better behaviour while you’re around, and will probably show you the best of their home city, leaving out the tour of the outer suburbs and the unfortunate local skinhead population. Even if they do drop some truth bombs on you, it’s still just going to be the experience of one person. Just as no one actually has 2.5 children, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ citizen. My family/friends/co-workers/life partner have spent years telling me I’m distinctly average, but if someone were to stay with me for a week they’d leave our country thinking “My God, all these Australians do is watch Futurama reruns and eat Christmas puddings for dinner.” Not entirely representative I’m sure, but I do maintain we’d all be a lot happier if it was.
Two weeks in Morocco has thrown a spanner into the works however, for I have now experienced The Riad. Riad’s are basically traditional houses in Morocco built around a central courtyard. I say houses but in reality they are more like palaces, so referring to them as in any representative of the average would be woefully inaccurate. Covered in intricately painted tiles and artwork they would have to be my favourite type of accommodation we’ve encountered thus far.
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We stayed in about four of them in total while we travelled around the country on Morocco’s surprisingly excellent train service. There is of course some discrepancy in the quality between riad’s but they all have some common traits that make them so wonderful. Straight off the bat, it’s just nice to have an open air courtyard in the middle of the house. You have all the benefits of being outside with zero of those pesky hassles like showering, or having to see other people. They also have any number of rooms, halls and sets of stairs which all lead to different places, giving you the impression that you are living in a colourful Escher print.
They are uniformly about 10 degrees cooler than it is outside, which I’m sure anyone who has been to Morocco, or in fact anyone who’s been in a hot place anywhere will appreciate the benefits of. They are often situated in the middle of the medina, which is generally speaking the oldest and most lively part of the city, making for easy day trips. Crucially, this avoids the curious experience of having your cab driver pull over and pick up more and more passengers until you feel compelled to apologise to anyone in the cab you may have accidentally touched inappropriately during the crush.
The only problem I found was that living near the medina meant you were exposed to more market hustling than usual, but even that could be a recipe for hilarity. While staying in Fez we had one particularly insistent man who owned a silver shop and every time we passed him he would insist we came in, no pressure, no need to buy, just for a look. We always demurred, largely due to the fact that we are exceedingly poor and not particularly good at withstanding intense Moroccan sales pressure. This continued on, growing more extravagant until he was laughingly offering us free things if we just came in and looked. Eventually on our last day, he threw himself on his knees in mock anguish and bellowed “WHY?!? Just tell me why!” So even the things that I would normally find a bit annoying were made somewhat less so by the riad.
Our riad in Fez was in fact my favourite of the four we visited. Not just because of the ancient medina, the innumerable cute kittens or the enormous camel burger at the Clock cafe. Nor even the terrifying severed camel’s head that hangs outside the butcher to let you know that yes, you are indeed buying camel meat.
The reason dawned on me on our first night when the parents of the young man who worked at the riad cooked us a traditional tajine dinner, with lentil salad and soup to accompany. The food was delicious, the old couple adorable and after they served us on the riad rooftop, they retired to the far corner where he whispered what I can only assume were hilarious jokes and she giggled like a school girl. It was right then, looking out over the 1000 year old medina, lit up under the black Moroccan sky that I realised I was in the middle of one of those rarest of life’s gifts. An absolutely perfect travel moment.