The smell of a place, the first time you take it in, tells you a lot about what you will find there, even if you think you aren’t looking for anything.
After managing to slip through the seams of a Spanish national general worker’s strike the day of our flight to Morocco, I stepped off the plane with the scent of warm wind, palm trees, of earth and of well, life coming to me from across the runway in Casablanca.
After spending an hour and a half in the tiny, smoke-filled airport with a friendly cat, we found ourselves tumbling out of a van in the middle of Marrakech, a 45-minute flight away from Casablanca. After getting our bags out of the back, dodging a donkey cart full of dirty onions, 15 taxis and a handful of motorized bicycles, we crossed the street and were led to our hostel, with a beautiful rooftop terrace and an enormous palm tree growing up through the center of the inner courtyard.
We found sleep easily and were drawn awake the next morning as the call to prayer came to us under the door and through the windows at sunrise.
having coffee, mint tea, pastries, bread and fresh squeezed orange juice under the tent on the roof, we managed to arrange a guided tour of Marrakech. Perhaps in the end we paid a little too much for it, but hey, sometimes you just have to let bygones by bygones.
Shawarma, spice shops, herbs laid out on blankets in the street, a city painted in red from top to bottom.
Winding through the medina (old city), we passed through the souks (markets) for spices, dyes, iron and brass, carpets, food and leather. We passed through palaces, tombs of past kings, queens and servants, a traditional pharmacy where we happened to score some 10-minute massages with organic oils and “Berber hotels” (indigenous, ethic group which inhabits North Africa) where they stay when they come to the city for auctions. The main square of the medina is a fascinating, captivating place, where henna, monkeys on leashes, boxing matches, cobra serenades (heard at all hours of the day and night) and carts where men have a pile of teeth and empty gums laid out to make dentures “to order”, are common occurrences.
Sometimes we’d find ourselves wondering how long it really
does take to charm a cobra.
Each day brought with it something that reminded me of places I have been before, as well as something - a sight, a smell, a feeling - completely original.
After almost buying half the roasted nut stand in one little mishap, successfully eating in the kamikaze-style night market for three evenings in a row, drinking turpentine-flavored 3-euro Moroccan wine out of old water bottles, eating a few too many pastries, and drinking Moroccan mint tea (like a sort of morning mojito hehe) at least ten times a day, I think we successfully fell into the pace of the country.
Before leaving Marrakech for our long ride to the desert, we explored the new city. There, after getting ourselves a little lost, we discovered some beautiful botanical gardens and well, a supermarket (which struck me as so similar to the one in Ghana that it was kind of scary.) Walking along the main road a number of hours later, we dodged an orange, or two, or three, thrown at us by someone in the bushes, and eventually found our way back to the medina. Haha.
Snaking through the Atlas Mountains, through
Berber and Bedouin (predominantly desert-inhabiting Arabian ethnic group) villages, we looked out on the modest and mesmerizing life in the countryside. Tucked into the back of our Toyota 4x4, we passed through oasis after oasis, filled with thousands of palm and date trees, sharing the car with our driver/the boss of our trip to the desert, Omar, and two wonderful women from the Netherlands.
Driving through Southern Morocco towards Ait Ben Haddou and countless fortresses still standing after hundreds of years, the ambiance set itself naturally with the Arabian music, and the occasional Phil Collins hit thrown into the mix, that came through the radio.
Ancient caves carved into mountainsides, lunch at an oasis with an ancient fortress as the backdrop, UNESCO World Heritage sites, a sporadic herd of camels or goats, or both, wandering over the dry scrubland.
Sex and the City 2 (the movie) was filmed in Marrakech, and the fortress at Ait Ben Haddou (which happens to be a UNESCO site) was also the filming location for Prince of Persia, Alexander the Great, and Gladiator, among many others.
We took a shortcut or two through the desert - where a pile of rocks
on the side of the road means there is sand or water in the path ahead, and at one point along the only road from Marrakech to the desert, a river had overflown its banks and we were left with but one choice. So, you betcha, we forded the river raging over the road like it was something we do every day of our lives. Rains this time of year are very unusual in Morocco, and as we passed the 25 or so vehicles lined up along the banks of the road/river gazing longingly at the other side, we created a spectacle for the entire village. “We go. We will make it.” With Omar’s firm confidence, we did indeed make it to the other side of the flooded bridge with a car full of cheering (slightly terrified) women and a huge grin spread across his face. Come hell or high water… haha.
We stayed the night in a village near Dades Gorge somewhere along the road and when we reached Omar’s village, Merzouga, at the edge of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes the next day, I could barely believe my eyes. The Sahara desert.
We got all arranged
and ready to go, and hopped on our camels (well, sort of). There were 16 of us in our group, plus the three Berber men who led us into the red and pink-colored dunes. The two and a half hours we were on the camels the first evening were not the 2.5 most comfortable hours of my life, but really, it was so breathtaking that I could almosttt forget the pain of the saddle (cough, iron bars) I was sitting on.
Riding the camels, with feet like big fuzzy desert-slippers, was so noiseless and really, quite peaceful. When one of the guys wasn’t screeching every time his ornery camel tried to throw him off or bite the camel in front of him, literally the only sound we could hear was the soft padding of feet on sand.
Also, I happened to notice that camels have beautiful eyelashes, and terrible breath. Hehe.
When we reached our camp, nestled in a little valley among the dunes, we started circling around and getting off for the night. Two of the groups of camels headed for the tents, but our group kept on trucking up the next dune. As we were
wondering where exactly we might be headed, the man leading our “herd” turned around and said, “We go to Algeria.” Haha, oh the small things. I think I laughed for about 10 minutes straight, because, well, we really could have gone to Algeria if he had wanted to lead us there.
After climbing the tallest dune near our camp and somehow completely missing the sunset, we did manage to catch a little windstorm. I have never seen, been covered in, or eaten that much sand in my whole life. I didn’t mind though, which is saying something, because I really do have a love/hate relationship with sand.
Scattered stars and a bright moon, drumming lessons, guys sliding down the sides of the dunes on skis, the occasional joke made by one of the Berber hosts (How do you put a camel in the freezer?), an amazing Moroccan dinner.
We slept under blankets made of Berber wool while the rain quietly pattered on our tent’s roof (rain in the desert!), and were roused up for breakfast at 5 am. After eating quickly, we packed up, got back on our camels (trusty old Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Brad
Pitt, just to name a few) and left in search of the sunrise. Watching the sunrise over the dunes in the Sahara Desert. It’s something I simply will not ever forget.
We drove 10 hours in the car on the way back to the city, stopping every two hours along the way. After one more night in Marrakech, we got up and caught the 7-hour train to Fez, an imperial city in northern Morocco.
Fez was my favorite city and I fell in love with wandering around the medina and spending time in our amazing little hostel. Every time we walked through the door of Dar El Yasmin, we drank more sweet mint tea and met somebody else from somewhere in the world.
We went to a tannery on our second day there and let me tell you, it was an absolutely repulsive smelling place. Men work in the tanneries dyeing leathers of all kinds to make purses, bags, jackets, etc. to be sold in markets around the world. They basically swim up to their waists or chests in vats of different liquids, and it smells like death. We saw the tannery from a terrace quite a
ways above the vats and it was still bad enough that they gave us mint leaves to keep close to our faces so we didn’t suffocate. I now have an appreciation for leather goods that I had no idea about before.
The co-owners of our hostel taught us how to cook traditional Moroccan food on our second night in Fez, and we had an interesting time buying the ingredients (especially the meat) from the market. After we finished eating in the tent on the roof, we went for a quick spin on motorbikes around the quiet medina. Haha.
Aside from fishing out a pair of fake Ray Ban sunglasses accidently dropped down a Turkish toilet (queee asco!) and “accidently” punching a crazy guy in the middle of the market who tried to run his cart into our legs (on purpose), we spent Saturday wandering the streets of the medina, bargaining, sampling all of the free sweets we could find, exploring the windy narrow streets and playing the donkey-and-mule-dodging game that you simply can’t avoid.
With two days left until our flight back home, we took the 7 am train to Tangier. After 5 hours and two different
trains (one of which I’m convinced was actually a sauna), we reached the northern tip of Morocco.
In looks, Tangier reminded me of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, with a Muslim flair. We stayed in a glorious hostel (where they upgraded us for no reason), and ate delicious Lebanese food on our last night. We walked around the city and of course, found our way to the ocean’s edge. We climbed the road up to an old fortress on the side of a hill overlooking a view of the southern tip of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, and we flew back Madrid at 2:30 pm on the 9th of April.
What a country.
Meanwhile, I’m missing you all.
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