A world of surprise and adventure in Morocco
SALAM alaikum... I didn't learn much of the Arabic language of Morocco apart from "peace be upon you". I was too busy touring the incredible sights and being entranced by the locals.
They say travel broadens the mind and out-of-the-way places like those in Morocco certainly expose a visitor to experiences and sights that an Australian like me would otherwise remain ignorant of.
The more I learnt about the history of the place, the more fascinating it became. I never expected to come across World Heritage sites like the Roman ruins at Volubilis - which contain some of the best floor mosaics ever found - or the 11th century, mud-brick village of Ait Benhaddou, a ready-made film set.
My host that night, who calls himself "Mr Action", has appeared as an extra in blockbusters like Game of Thrones and Gladiator. He also serves up a pretty delicious cous cous dinner.
Looking back on a two-week trip, from Casablanca to Marrakesh, I can say that the Moroccans our tour group encountered were unfailingly kind, helpful and hospitable.
Our guide, Tahar, taught us lots about Islam, including its respect for women and tendency towards humility and modesty.
What struck me most about Morocco was its lack of industrial pollution. Much of the manufacturing is done with traditions passed down through generations.
A local baker with a wood-fired oven cooks bread for an entire neighbourhood. Ceramics are made and painted by hand, not machine. Women can still be seen on the riverbanks, scrubbing clothes in the fast-flowing water.
This primitive (some may say desirable) way of life contributes to several tour highlights.
Most memorable is the stunning view of the night sky seen on a camel and camping trek into the Sahara desert.
It's like standing on the edge of the world with the brightest stars enclosing you in their sparkling embrace.
A lack of mod-cons also means the food is fresher and tastier. It's picked when it's ripe and eaten quickly. As an example, a pomegranate bought at a roadside stall had an unforgettable fragrance and every mouthful was delectable.
If you're travelling to the Atlas Mountains in November, bring your beanie and thermal underwear.
I took little notice of the tour note that warned of wintry nights, and as a result darn near froze. No heating and a single blanket on the bed at one guesthouse guaranteed an icy night on one snow-strewn mountainside.
An experience you'll get nowhere else is bathing in the village hammam.
Men and women are, of course, separated for this important ritual. Most families have no access at home to piped water, hot or cold, so the hammam is their way of keeping clean while, at the same time, socialising.
Expecting to be suitably dressed in my one-piece swimming togs, I walked into the first steamy room to find half-naked females of all ages and sizes clothed only in knickers, ladling hot and cold water from buckets over their bodies.
As a tourist, I was given special treatment - a vigorous massage by an overbearing attendant that rubbed off my caked-on dirt, leaving the skin red and throbbing.
Once I resigned myself to the exhibitionist aspects of communal bathing, I actually began to enjoy it. I can think of no better way to find out how the locals behave.
Shukrun (thank you) for your attention.
If you're planning a trip to Morocco, expect to have lots of memorable experiences and to come home a little wiser ... and cleaner.
Morocco is an African country and belongs to the Maghreb region.
Arabic is the official language, although French is widely used.
Morocco, like the rest of the Middle East, is an Islamic country.
Giving alms to the poor is a social and cultural obligation designed to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
Overt displays of affection between couples are frowned upon.
The national drink is mint tea, otherwise known as Berber whiskey.