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There are apps you can use to send postcards when you're travelling. Or you could sit at a sunny outdoor cafe in a mountain town where the walls of the houses are as blue as the sky, with a pen in your hand, a cat warming your lap (every Moroccan cafe has one) and some actual postcards on the table before you.
That's what I'm doing, five days into my first trip to Morocco. The cafe has Wi-Fi – I can see other patrons scrolling through their Facebook feeds – but I haven't asked for the password. Because I don't have my phone with me, because I'm on one of Intrepid Travel's new Digital Detox trips.
When I first travelled overseas, the internet hadn't been invented yet and mobile phones were still the size of a housebrick.
Mail days were special occasions on my three-month overland trip across Africa that year. It was like a scene from M*A*S*H: our guide would return from town with an armful of grimy, well-travelled envelopes addressed to "Poste restante", we'd crowd around him while he squinted at each handwritten name and those of us lucky enough to receive weeks-old news from home would retreat to the shade of a tree to read it.
Back then, there were large chunks of the globe where you could be pretty much guaranteed no contact with the rest of the world.
Now communications of all kinds bombard us from all directions at all hours, wherever we are.
Not only that but spending so much of our lives online – half a day a week on Facebook alone according to the 2016 Sensis Social Media Report – has created a new trend, seeking "time out" from technology.
"The problem with digital technology is that it's future- and past-oriented, always taking you to where you're not," says Sydney environmental psychologist Dr Rob Hall (see breakout for his tech-free travel tips). That might be handy when planning a trip or sharing your adventures en route, but it can also stop you from experiencing the place you've gone all that way to, well, experience.
Last year, Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel launched four innovative Digital Detox trips in response to feedback from its 1300 trip leaders in more than 100 countries.
"Where's the toilet?" used to be the question trip leaders were most often asked, they said. Now it's, "What's the Wi-Fi password?" But it goes deeper than that.
"Our trip leaders have told us that social media is not only changing how our travellers connect with each other," says James Thornton, Intrepid's managing director, "it's influencing their ability to connect with the locals they meet along the way."
The new trips aim to remedy this, by encouraging travellers to "switch off for long enough to immerse themselves in the experience and to connect with people – because that's when a trip goes from being just a holiday to something more life-changing," Thornton says.
It's a wintry evening in Casablanca when I meet trip leader Khalid Lamlih and my fellow detoxers: three 20-something postgrad students from China and Mexico all living in the US and a 45-year-old engineer from South Africa.
Khalid gives us an overview of the week ahead, impressing on us that Morocco is bigger and more complex than most first-timers think – 3000 kilometres end to end with two cultures, Arab and Berber, and a history more complicated than Game of Thrones – which is why it's going to take us nine days to zigzag across North Morocco to Marrakesh, which is only 250 kilometres from Casablanca as the falcon flies.
Then he talks about the Digital Detox part, but it's not until the next morning, when we all have to sign a pledge not to use our smartphones or any other devices during the trip, that reality sinks in.
(The first two Digital Detox trips, in Ecuador and Thailand, were also camera-free. There was talk of giving clients disposable or Polaroid cameras to use, but this proved so unpopular the trips didn't run and Intrepid decided to allow photography.)
There are nervous laughs around the breakfast table as we "solemnly swear to renounce all forms of technology", to unplug from social media, to "like but never 'like'" and to "ask humans, not Siri" when we have questions.
One of the Chinese students, Tan, confesses that she'd thought the phone-free references in the trip notes were meant in a light-hearted, phone-optional way. Describing an opportunity to try a camel burger, for instance, the notes say, "If you didn't Instagram it, did you really eat it? #youdid."
So she's genuinely alarmed at the prospect of being phone-less for a week. Khalid shrugs, not unsympathetically (he can still use his phone, of course).
"But I have to text my mom!" Tan says.
This is going to be interesting.
Our first tech-free test is a one-hour train ride to Rabat, the capital. (The trip doesn't include any time in Casablanca, for good reason. Morocco's largest city and economic capital is rather charmless despite the mystique created by the eponymous 1942 movie, which was filmed entirely in Hollywood anyway.)
As the train leaves the station, we lose ourselves in getting-to-know-you chat. Then I notice something. The carriage is full, but we're the only ones talking. All the other passengers are scrolling, listening, tapping. It's the first sign that this is very different to the accidental "digital detox" trips I've been on in recent years, always in remote or sparsely populated places without Wi-Fi or mobile reception. This time we're in civilised cyberspace, choosing to ignore it.
In Rabat, we stash our luggage at a cafe near the station. Khalid gives us printed maps and points out the city's highlights before sending us on a traveller's treasure hunt to find them, on foot and by taxi.
It's a great way to see the city – the markets, the ruins of a 12th century mosque, the tree-lined Avenue Mohammed V (every Moroccan city has one, named after the current king's grandfather) – until we get lost in the maze-like Oudaya Kasbah, an imposing cliff-top fort.
Out of habit, Tan opens Google Maps on her phone, prompting mock howls of protest from the rest of us. Then Jimena, from Mexico, pulls out her guidebook and leads the way to our last stop, a rampart with a view over the entire city, a surfing beach and the Bou Regreg river flowing into the cold, grey North Atlantic. Mission accomplished.
HOLY HILL TOWN & ROMAN RUINS
Although you can do this trip without the Digital Detox component, the itinerary cleverly maximises our people-time: we travel mostly by public transport, stay at locally owned hotels and homestays, and have a different local guide at each stop to ensure we see Morocco through many different eyes.
At Moulay Idriss, two hours by train and 45 minutes by road from Rabat, our bags are loaded onto a donkey for the steep walk to our homestay while we explore with our first local guide, Magid.
It's late afternoon and getting colder by the minute when Magid, a schoolteacher, leads us through this picturesque little town spilling down the side of Mount Zerhoun. As we walk along narrow lanes painted swimming pool-blue and pale green, he points out landmarks of daily life – the public bakery, the hammam, the mosque – and explains why this is Morocco's holiest town. Its founder, Moulay Idriss, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, brought Islam to Morocco in the eighth century, he says, and became the country's first Arab ruler. Now more than half a million pilgrims visit every year and making five pilgrimages is said to be the spiritual equivalent of going to Mecca.
Suddenly we emerge at a terrace warmed by the setting sun. Everything is golden and still, the only sound a muezzin's call to prayer from a mosque below. We snap a few pictures and stand in silence, taking in the timeless scene. Not a single photo is shared.
Next morning we drive five kilometres down the mountain and deeper into pre-digital time, to Volubilis. Local guide Abdullah shows us around this World Heritage-listed site, rebuilding with his words the city that once stood at the south-west corner of the Holy Roman Empire and was home to 25,000 Romans and Berbers (or Amazigh, as they call themselves) at its peak in the second century.
We walk along straight-as-an-aqueduct avenues that chariots would have rattled along and under the triumphal arch, peer into now-roofless public baths and houses, their mosaic floors still intact, and gaze out at vineyards, olive trees and wheat fields first planted on the surrounding plains more than 2000 years ago. Incredibly, two-thirds of the city lies under our feet, including a colosseum and arena, buried by an 18th century earthquake and still waiting to be unearthed.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Every Moroccan city has two parts – a "nouvelle ville" (new city) and a medina (old city) – but nowhere is the contrast between them greater than in Fez, our next stop.
In Fez's new city, with its cosmopolitan locals, high-rise apartment blocks and street-facing footpath cafes, you could be in southern France. Then you plunge into the medina, the world's oldest "old city" and largest car-free urban space, and find a medieval ant-farm of earthen lanes where people get around in djellebas (long hooded robes) and pointy babouche slippers, fresh camel heads advertise local butchers and every second shop is an Aladdin's Cave brimming with ancient trinkets and Berber jewellery.
We're there on a Friday, a day of prayer for devout Muslims, and many shops are closed, making the medina oddly peaceful. None of us has come to shop, but Morocco's souvenirs are hard to resist – leather bags, jackets and sandals, hand-woven Berber carpets, clay tagines, lanterns, silver jewellery – particularly in Fez. "If people want something handmade, they come to Fez, even from Marrakesh," says our guide Hakima, who knows just where to find what we never knew we wanted.
CHEFCHAOUEN: THE BLUE CITY
Another reason this trip doesn't feel like a tour is that there's oodles of free time: three whole days and four afternoons plus all our lunches and dinners (only breakfasts are included). Khalid gives us local tips along the way, from where to go for a hammam to how much to pay for a taxi, which in turn gives us the confidence to explore independently, even individually.
On day six, after a four-hour bus trip from Fez, we arrive in Chefchaouen, Morocco's famed "blue city", which is ideal for solo explorations. (I never feel unsafe on the trip and this is one Arab country where female travellers don't need to wear headscarves; many Moroccan women don't.)
I spend that first afternoon letting blue doors lead me down quiet tourist-free lanes where I watch boys doing parkour moves against blue walls and befriend a few street cats before sitting in a sunny cafe to write those postcards.
The next morning our little group comes together for a half-day hike in the surrounding hills that takes us past two small mosques, Berber women herding goats and lush fields of cannabis ("kif" has been farmed in the Rif mountains since the 15th century and Morocco is one of the largest producers in the world).
It's all very rustic, until we stop for mint tea at a farmhouse and our guide Abdul gets out his phone. "My friend sent me a joke on WhatsApp," he laughs. Even when you press "pause", it seems, the world keeps turning.
ROAD TRIP TO TANGIER
Khalid has quite a repertoire of tech-free ways to pass the time, it turns out. On our three-hour road trip from Chefchaouen to Tangier, our second-last stop, he tells us a story, a Moroccan fable about two brothers, Mustafa and Ali, a red lantern and greed, while we gaze out the windows imagining the action unfolding in any one of the flat-roofed villages we pass.
Then, to save us from our own playlists, he plugs his phone into the car stereo and treats us to some Moroccan and North African music. It's like listening to the landscape itself.
Before we know it we're standing at the north-west tip of Africa, Cape Spartel just outside Tangier, watching the Atlantic Ocean mingle with the Mediterranean and looking across the water at Spain, 14 kilometres away.
A free afternoon gives us a few tantalising glimpses of Tangier, a gleaming beachfront metropolis-under-construction once renowned for its spies and diplomats, artists and musicians and writers such as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles – who lived here for 52 years until his death in 1999 and has a room dedicated to him at the fascinating American Legation Museum (Morocco was the first country to recognise America's independence, in 1777).
Then it's sunset on the wide beach, until the temperature drops and we retreat to a Lebanese restaurant across the road for dinner (Tangier must be one of the most multicultural cities in Africa). With hours to kill before our overnight train to Marrakesh, Khalid helps us resist the siren call of the restaurant's Wi-Fi by teaching us a couple of card games. I'd forgotten how much fun playing cards can be, how quickly and easily it brings people together.
By the time we're on the train, settling into our four-bed compartments, it's late and we're all too tired to stay up playing cards or singing Crosby Stills and Nash songs (Graham Nash's 1960s Marrakesh Express was inspired by a train ride to Marrakesh, but from Casablanca). The over-heated carriage rocking on its rails sends us gently to sleep.
END OF THE LINE
"Bonjour! Marrakesh 30 minutes!" Just like that we find ourselves in another big city, at the bosom of Mother Interweb, checking Facebook over a hotel breakfast like strangers (despite still having one free day left, to explore touristy Marrakesh).
We "friend" each other and swap email addresses. Confessions emerge: Tan had sent text messages to her parents most nights and a couple of the others had checked social media in their hotel rooms. "I didn't have anything else to do," says Jun, the other Chinese student, "and reading gets boring."
There are revelations too: "Once I reconnected, I realised what a relief it has been not to be on Facebook, email and WhatsApp," says Sly, from South Africa.
Of course there's an element of artifice to an experience like this, like choosing candlelight when you have access to electricity. It's romantic and retro and unrealistic long-term. But unplugging long-term had never been our goal.
Digital Detox trips are about getting back to first principles, sharing simple pleasures and remembering why we love to travel: to experience the world for ourselves, see things with our own eyes, have encounters with people only we can have. Maybe next time I'll leave my camera at home too, just to see what happens.
Etihad Airways flies daily to Casablanca from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth via Abu Dhabi and from Brisbane via Sydney and Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com/en-au
Australians don't need a visa for stays of less than 90 days.
Intrepid Travel's next nine-day Digital Detox North Morocco Adventure starts on December 8 in Casablanca and costs from $1035 a person, including a local trip leader, local guides, all transport, accommodation and breakfasts. Intrepid's other Digital Detox trips, both new this year, are the 13-day Mountains & Mystics (India) trip in November ($1520 a person) and the nine-day Vietnam Active Family Holiday in September/October ($1590 a person). See intrepidtravel.com/au/digital-detox
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN MOROCCO
1. Trek the High Atlas: No Roads has an 11-day High Atlas Circuit trek ($2500pp) starting in Marrakesh that includes camping in Berber villages and climbing Jebal Toubkal, Morocco's highest peak at 4167m. See noroads.com.au
2. Stay in a luxury riad: Dar Attajmil in Marrakesh's medina has four exquisitely decorated rooms from €90 a night. See darattajmil.com. For more on riad design, By Prior Arrangement runs Interiors & Gardens tours; see bypriorarrangement.com
3. Do a Sahara safari: Nothing says "North Africa" like sleeping in a Berber tent in the Sahara. Safaris start at €235 per person per night including guided camel trips, sandboarding and nightly entertainment by the campfire. See desertcampmorocco.com
4. Gnaua & World Music Festival: Local and visiting jazz, world music and "gnaua" artists (music traditionally played by West African slaves) perform every summer in the coastal town of Essaouira (June 29-July 1 this year); a four-day pass costs only 600 dirhams (about $77). See festival-gnaoua.net/en/
5. Surf Morocco: Surf Maroc has beachfront accommodation and surf packages from €388 per person, including yoga/surf trips and women's surf weeks, at Taghazout, the epicentre of surfing in Morocco. See surfmaroc.com
CHECK IN AND DROP OUT: FIVE DIGITAL DETOX STAYS
Forget free Wi-Fi. These properties go out of their way to give guests precious time out from technology:
1. Brenner's Park Hotel & Spa, Germany: This health resort in Baden Baden has copper plates in the walls of the 15 rooms and suites in Villa Stephanie to allow guests to block wireless signals, mobile reception and electricity at the flick of a "digital detox switch". See brenners.com
2. Binna Burra Lodge, Queensland: This nature-based resort in Lamington National Park, 90 minutes from Brisbane, has a free Smart Phone Minding Service and a new Tech-Free Challenge: stay offline and you get a Tech Free Certificate. See binnaburralodge.com.au
3. Mandarin Oriental hotel spas: Mandarin Oriental spas worldwide run regular "silent nights" and offer Digital Wellness Escape treatments to ease tech-induced tensions; after the massage, spa guests reclaim their (cleaned) devices packaged in covers designed to block electromagnetic waves. See mandarinoriental.com
4. Camp Grounded, US: These "summer camps for adults" run in four US states and require participants to give up their devices, not look at clocks or talk about work and do unplugged activities such as hiking, drawing and analog photography. See campgrounded.org
5. Westin Vendome Paris: Guests booking a Digital Detox Package leave their devices in a safe at reception and are offered a spa treatment, fitness gear to use, a guide to the city's parks, gardens and open-air activities, and magazines for digital-free reading. See thewestinparis.com/digital-detox
FIVE MORE WAYS TO SWITCH OFF
We all know how NOT to use a phone. "The tricky part is convincing yourself, and those you're travelling with, that even a short break from digital technology produces tremendous benefits," says Sydney environmental psychologist Rob Hall.
These include reduced stress, a stronger immune system, "reconnecting with the people we're travelling with, usually our loved ones, [and] being more available to learn about the destination we're visiting. And the bottom line is we feel happier." His tips for a holiday from technology:
1. You don't have to go cold turkey. Just use your smartphone judiciously. If you need to go online to check in for a flight or book accommodation, give yourself a time slot to do that and stick to it.
2. Keep your phone on aeroplane mode, particularly when travelling in Australia, so you can use the camera and offline apps without being tempted to check social media.
3. Consider taking a camera instead of using your phone, to reduce temptation. Or use a Polaroid, disposable or film camera.
4. Turn off all your devices two hours before bedtime for a better night's sleep (blue light from screens switches off melatonin, our sleep hormone).
5. Be where you are. "I like to build into my day a regular commitment to sign off and tune in to the place I'm visiting," Hall says. "Just sitting in a cafe people-watching and experiencing all that's going on around you can be enough, and surprisingly restorative."
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