Tim recently caught up with Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki to talk about her unique perspective as an American blogger living in Morrocco. She shares with us the story of how she started her blog, MarocMama, how she has blended her love of food and travel, and introduces us to her business, Marrakech Food Tours.
So you met your dream man in Morocco, moved to Marrakech, and went all in as a local. How did you then get started as a travel blogger?
I actually didn’t start out as a travel blogger. I started my blog, Marocmama, almost seven years ago when my husband and I were living in Washington DC. I started writing a food blog and would share recipes – mostly just for my younger sister who would call and bother me regularly for my Moroccan recipes. I didn’t think anyone else was reading but I started to get comments and requests. When I was laid off during the recession I decided to take what was a hobby and try to at least make some money. I still wrote recipes and worked with companies doing brand ambassadorships, recipe development and social media work. About a year before we were moving to Morocco, when our lives were more stable and we were traveling more thanks to a steady income, I began writing more about travel and that’s where it took a turn to where I am today. Food and travel are the things I love and I have figured out a way to combine them both in what I write and how I travel.
You obviously write from a unique position on many levels. What has worked best for you in growing an audience and making an income from your work?
I think it was a combination of luck and foresight in how I positioned myself. Morocco was always a part of what I wrote because of my marriage and our travels to visit family. I just happened to also fall in love with Moroccan food and other types of cuisines as well so it has been a natural fit. I have really tried to go out of my way to learn as much as possible about this country and it’s food culture. I also am naturally motivated to share my passion with others in a candid and honest way. I don’t try to hide who we are or what our experiences are and I think readers really appreciate that. I get so many comments and emails from people who say they felt they had connected with me through my writing – that’s really gratifying. I would say that’s what has made it work. I don’t hide who I am, I am honest and I go out of my way to be helpful. When we started our food tour business, one of the things that helped it become successful out of the gate was that people trusted me and knew I knew what I was talking about. Where it not for that I don’t think it would have been successful.
Has being there led to any freelance jobs that have landed in your lap and do you pitch stories to publications?
Certainly. I have been approached many times by people who are looking for different content about Morocco. It certainly helps that I can speak decent Arabic and my husband is a built-in translator. I am able to convey more than people who are just visiting and I always have my ear to the ground for unique stories. I’ve really enjoyed working with magazines and publications that come to Marrakech to give them a different view than the typical tourist. I also pitch stories but haven’t had as much time to do this as I would like, simply because I’m trying to get our food tour business to a stage that doesn’t require so much oversight on my part.
I know you run a very successful food tour business in Morocco. How did you get started with that and how have you grown it since?
I alluded to some of this in the previous questions but the basic premise was it broke my heart to see tourists leaving Morocco with either a distorted idea of what Moroccan food was or a bad idea. I was that tourist. When I first came over a decade ago, before I knew my husband, I left and never wanted to eat Moroccan food again. It was bland, it all tasted the same and was not appealing – or so I thought. After spending more time here I quickly changed my mind. When we finally moved to Marrakech in 2013, I had the idea to do a food tour to show tourists what they were missing out on. We love doing food tours when we travel so it made sense to me. We wanted to create something to show tourists what and where Moroccan people would eat and do it in a way that would give them confidence to try it themselves.
After a few months of planning, I did one blog post which directed readers to a website for the tours and our first reservations for Marrokech Food Tours were literally rolling in overnight. We had hoped to do one or two tours per week as something fun and we now are operating daily tours and often two tours a day. I have never paid for advertising but do regularly mention it on my website. We use Instagram to share pictures every now and then (on my own personal feed with a hashtag for the tour), and I’ve also used Pinterest to increase interest. I also think TripAdvisor has been very helpful as people tend to see our reviews and book a tour. We started offering an afternoon and evening tour, which we still do. We’ve also added a hands-on artisan tour in the souks of Marrakech, and a rural market food adventure tour. We have plans to start operating food-focused, personalized vacation packages and possibly a gourmet food tour as well.
I gotta ask the elephant in the room question: as an American who is married to a Muslim and wears a headscarf, what kinds of experiences and encounters do you have to deal with now as you travel in other countries?
I knew you would! I actually enjoy when people ask this because I would much rather someone ask than wonder. My experience varies depending on where I go. I also have to measure how safe I feel, especially when I’m traveling alone. Sometimes it works in my favor and other times it doesn’t. It is a personalchallenge for me and as a Muslim woman it is certainly something I struggle with. For example, in the US I don’t feel comfortable or safe wearing a hijab. I have had very negative experiences and this has deeply affected me. This will sound strange, but when people treat me like a normal person – the same way I know they would act were I not wearing a scarf – it has a big impact on me and the memory stays with me. Ironically enough the people that are the kindest are in the countries that have a higher degree of religiosity and they tend to be older men. I feel they actually have a lot of respect for a young woman who sort of defies what others of my age group are doing.
I also look at what I do as an opportunity to show the people I meet a different side of Islam than what they think they know. Here I am, a married Muslim woman, wearing a scarf, doing things they don’t expect. The image of course is I would be locked up at home under my husband’s guard but reality is so far from that.
You and I met on a post-trip after TBEX Athens. What have you gained from going to that conference or others?
I always enjoy attending conferences like TBEX because of the people I meet. I have had some really good friendships that have come out of attending conferences. I think the key is to really know why you want to go and make the experience your own. If you hate parties and don’t dig the bar scene, don’t do it. You’ll be surprised to discover that no matter what there are people like you, take the time and opportunity to find them. Most of all, be you. Don’t be who you think people expect you to be. It will be more meaningful if you just be your authentic self.
Amanda is a curious world-traveling mom of two busy boys, foodie and lover of all things Moroccan. She writes the blog MarocMama, is a freelance writer, and business owner living in Marrakech, Morocco. Starting with only $50 in seed money Amanda and her husband launched Marrakech Food Tours, the first food tour in Marrakech. Her goal in writing is to introduce readers to her global life, inspire them to try something new, and show them the world is waiting. You can connect with Amanda on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.