I returned from Spring Break to fall back into my comfortable Madrid routine. I visited Retiro, grabbed ice cream with friends and even hit up the discoteca. After enjoying about 10 days in Madrid, it was off to my next and by far most exotic location: Morocco. That’s right. I was leaving the continent and heading to Africa. I made la decision ejecutiva to skip theater and depart for Marruecos on Thursday rather than Friday.
A group of seven friends and I headed to the airport on Thursday where I boarded my first Ryan Air flight. I’d been warned about flying Ryan Air…the uncomfortable seats, the nickel and diming…but this was perhaps my most pleasant flight! I was seated next to two Spanish men whose wives were seated just across the aisle. For the entire flight we talked and laughed in Spanish, they bought me a water bottle, and all in all, we had a great time.
After a little more than an hour of friendly conversation, we landed in Marrakesh where a driver from our hostel picked up my group. I would be lying if I said we all weren’t a tad nervous about the trip, but we figured it would be an adventure for all of us to enjoy together. From the moment we left the airport, we immediately noticed differences between anywhere we’d been before and where we presently were. It smelled different, looked different, felt different. No one spoke Spanish and English was rarely used.
The hostel was situated on a street too narrow for the van to pass so we were passed off from the driver to a hostel escort. We followed him through a windy neighborhood and safely arrived at the hostel, or riat. We did not have even eight hours between our arrival to the hostel and the time our excursion guide was to pick us up. Mustapha, our friendly, English-speaking, Moroccan-born guide collected us from the hostel and led us to our van for the weekend.
We knew what our itinerary had in store: a drive to the desert, camel rides, camping and some sightseeing along the way. We figured the drive to the desert would be two, three hours, right? WRONG. Mustapha surprised us when he told us that it would be about EIGHT hours from where we were in Marrakesh to where we were going. With that new information, we accepted it and settled in for a long, long drive.
Mustapha was a great chauffeur and guide. He knew a lot about Morocco, Moroccan politics and current events, and had great perspective about other cultures, too. He let us play our own music in the car and took us to delicious restaurants off the beaten (read: only) path. His only requirement, of which he reminded us frequently was, “no naps!” When it looked like someone was about to catch some Z’s, he lightly shouted that phrase. To pass the time he also gave us all Moroccan names and explained to us their meanings. I was the first to receive a name, Fatima. He said I was princess of the desert and was worth more than 1,000 camels! Not bad.
On our drive we watched the landscape change dramatically. Morocco’s landscape was far more varied than I anticipated. We saw lush tree-covered mountains, drier mountains, layered plateaus, places comparable to the Grand Canyon and of course, desert. We made a pit-stop at the highest road pass in the Atlas Mountains. (This is the highest road for cars, though Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain.)
Several hours later, Mustapha told us we were close to our camel pick-up location. He told us to keep an eye out for our group of camels and guides on the side of the road. Nothing. So we looped back. How did we miss eight camels? Well we didn’t miss them, but they hadn’t arrived to our “boarding” area. Everything for miles around us was dry and sandy, but our present location was surprisingly green and lush. We were at a watermelon farm! Who would have thought that in one of the world’s driest climates, we’d be walking among rows and rows of well-irrigated watermelon plants.
Some of us (not me) were beginning to worry that the camels wouldn’t show and we’d be stranded in the Sahara. Bye families! Thankfully that wasn’t the case and seven saddled camels and guides showed up for the eight of us. Did they lose a camel? We think there might have been a miscommunication about the total number in our party so two of my friends carpooled – camel-pooled – to our campsite. The camels were funky looking animals. How could such skinny legs support their round bodies? Were we to sit on their humps or behind them? And how would we get all the way up to their backs?
Those questions and more were soon answered when Mustapha and the guides directed us to our camels. With some tugs and commands issued in Arabic, the camels awkwardly knelt to the ground and we swung our legs up and over. We braced for impact as the camels abruptly stood up in two swift motions – first the back legs, then the front. Once everyone was saddled and ready to go, we made the thirty-five minute journey to our campsite aboard the semi-smelly creatures.
None of us knew what to expect at the campsite. We low-balled our expectations as to not be disappointed. We expected tents we’d likely pitch ourselves and food prepared over a campfire. Boy, were we wrong! It looked like a mirage…several, large jaimas already pitched for us. The walled tents had mattresses, blankets and sheets and there were different tents for dining and showering. There were even stand-up, flushing toilets in the bathroom tent! After moving our gear to the tents, we were treated to Moroccan tea inside the dining tent.
The campsite came with a full staff of attendants and cooks. We were incredibly fortunate to be the only ones at the campsite. Mustapha let us know that the following day, the day we were leaving, a group of 35 was arriving! It was just by chance our trips didn’t overlap.
Dinner was a feast. They kept bringing out more and more plates. We were so spoiled! After dinner, the staff lit a campfire for us and entertained us with traditional Moroccan and
Berber songs. After a long day of driving and camel riding, I was ready to hit the hay…I mean, the sand. While the idea of a bathroom with a lightbulb seemed great during the day, that ideal quickly dissipated once the sun set as every single bug in Morocco was drawn to the light. I draped a towel over my face in an effort to shield myself from the creepy crawly guests, but I was still “attacked” by flying and buzzing enemies.
That night’s sleep was rough. A windstorm hit our campsite and I thought our tents might blow away! They didn’t. But when we woke up the next morning, we walked through a cloud of sand. After breakfast, we heaved ourselves back onto the camels and made our way back to the van that was still parked at the watermelon farm. On this leg of the camel-led journey, I shared a camel with Janice. It was a cozy ride.
Mustapha told us that it was unusual for a group to come from Marrakesh and stay at the campsite for only one night. I can see why because of the very long time to get there, but after the sand and bugs, one night was all I needed. That being said, it was an experience I’ll treasure for ever (bugs and sand-burn aside).
We made some stops for food and water on our way back to Marrakesh. We stopped in a city called Ourzazate (whar-za-zet). It’s also known as the Hollywood of Morocco as several movies like “Gladiator” have been filmed there. We went to traditional Moroccan market, where I was off-put by the pushy negotiations and bartering. A few miles later we stopped at a women’s co-op where I purchased some authentic Argan oil.
We arrived back in Marrakesh where Mustapha dropped us back at our original hostel. With limited time in the city, we decided to forego much needed showers until after dinner. After walking through the city, we found an outdoor Italian place for dinner. Marrakesh was fairly quiet at night and aside from tourists out on the streets, there were mostly only men. Before going to Morocco I was advised to dress very conservatively as to not attract too much attention and to not disrespect the culture. I don’t believe I did either, but it was different not seeing many women out.
After dinner we took turns showering before bed. We packed up our luggage and set out to enjoy one last morning in Morocco. The Sunday morning market was not quite awake when we arrived, but after enjoying an incredibly cheap and delicious breakfast in the medina, the shopkeepers and shoppers were out in full force. I bought some traditional pottery to bring home to my family as a souvenir – one of the first I’d bought the whole semester. We took a quick look at the exterior of the city’s mosque or mesquita before heading back to the hostel where they were ready to drive us back to the airport.
Between the delicious food, new culture, long van rides, memorable camel rides, ferocious windstorm and everything else along the way, my time in Morocco was one for the books!