The story of how I quit my job and went to play in Madrid

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Adventures in Morocco Part 1: Marrakech

For Christmas this year, we decided to skip Christmas. Margaux had some days off and we booked the cheapest flight we could find, which happened to be Marrakech, Morocco. I can’t say that Marrakech was at the top of either of our travel lists, but then again, we don’t really have travel lists yet. Anyway, we arrived in Marrakech knowing next to nothing. It’s not a very good way to travel, because it makes the learning curve a little too steep, plus it makes us look like ignorant American jerks. But there we were, with the only page about the entire country of Morocco torn out of our “Europe on a Shoestring” book. (It is a book about Europe, after all.) Lesson learned.

We caught the bus to the center of the old town. J’ma el Fna. I had seen it on an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and was eager to see all the action.

Snake charmers and cobras, monkeys, orange juice vendors, drummers, story tellers, henna painters, horses, donkeys pulling carts, motorcycles and cars all whizzing around without any semblance of order. Not to mention the smell. Use your imagination.

It was a lot to take in. I was eager to dump our bags at the hostel so we could explore without the obvious, “I just got here”-look that declares, “Please ask me for money!”  We wandered down a small alley as directed by the hostel’s directions we had printed the night before. There are not many street signs, and using directions like “take the third left” and “on the corner” are impossible when streets wind and bend in every direction. Our directions told us to go through two arches and then follow the alley to our right until it bends to the left. We managed to find it!

When we went in, we were invited to sit for tea. We had tea, and looked at the map. A little while later a woman came over to tell us about the hostel. I guess that was our check in. We were led to our room, which was on the roof of a building behind the original hostel, and dumped our bags. I was excited to go back out to the square and look at everything.

By dinner time, we were caught up in the maze of food vendors who set up shop every night and try to persuade every person who walks by to come eat. Every food stand has a beautiful display of raw meats, veggies, salads and breads. It’s basically a health inspector’s worst nightmare. And an adventurous eater’s dream. We chose stall #117. “Number 117, to heaven,” the waiter says. We sit at a picnic table covered with plastic and tell the waiter that we want to try a little bit of everything, except fish and couscous. Tiny plates, one after another, are served to our delight. Everything is fucking delicious. Olives, lamb skewers, roasted eggplant, stewed veggies and lamb, lemon chicken, spicy bright red sauce in a little dish that I basically drank right up. The lady next to us was eating a sheep’s head, right off the skull complete with teeth and eyes. Cool!!!

The next morning, we spend time wandering through the tiny streets filled with millions of things and very eager salespeople (souks are the little shops lining tiny streets). This was something we had seriously underestimated in our prep for the trip. The constant, relentless, and persuasive chatter from every single shopkeeper and street vendor. It was, at first, too intense for either of us to handle. The first night, we had gotten carried away by a pair of women hawking henna tattoos and ended up getting half-rate henna at quintuple the price. Not because we wanted to get ripped off, but because we didn’t know what we were doing. So wandering through the souks was overwhelming for both of us, especially with the sting of being ripped off fresh in our mind. Still, it’s hard to be unimpressed with the hustle and bustle of the streets.

We ate more delicious food, bought some knitted hats, dodged mopeds, donkey carts and running kids. We drank some coffee. Mostly we just stared at everything, trying to take it all in. We realized how very little we know and understand about this city, culture and its customs. I have never been more aware of the fact that I am a woman. We walked past a cafe looking to get some coffee and realized there was not a single woman inside, despite the crowded streets, then we noticed ALL the cafes had only men. Confused and uncomfortable, we found a tourist-y cafe instead.  It is strange to be so aware of social rules and not understand them at the same time.

By the end of our first full day, our minds were exhausted. We headed back to the hostel, and were pleasantly surprised with the lovely company that had gathered on the hostel rooftop to smoke shisha (hookah) and swap travel stories. We joined them, had a few beers and laughed about our cultural blunders and misinformation. Everyone seemed to have traveled much more extensively than Margaux and me. We ate up their stories of traveling, asked lots of questions and got too many recommendations about other places to go and top 3 must-sees. The other travelers also sympathized with our confusion in Marrakech and helped us understand some of the cultural differences.

We learned that the constant pressure to “come look!” “you will like this, good price” that is relentless in the city is just the way it is. We can’t change it, and if we wanted a comfortable experience, we should have just gone to Target or Starbucks.  I realized that the reason we were uncomfortable is because we have never experienced this before. Duh. This IS travel. To be uncomfortable and gain experiences. Uncomfortable means you are doing something new! Of course, uncomfortable is different than unsafe. We were uncomfortable, but not unsafe. With this realization, I was ecstatic. This is what I signed up for! Hell yes.

Maybe one day I’ll tell you about the local hammam (bath house), where we got a naked scrub down in a steamy room full of other people. No pics of that. Obviously. Talk about being uncomfortable!  Or when you have some free time, I’ll tell you about the pharmacy we went to, or the adventure it was to get some wine in this dry town! Or about the tea that had some vicks vaporub in it, I think. Good times.

Read about our Camel Trek in Part 2!

Here’s the pics, click on one photo for the slideshow.


Adventures in Morocco Part 2: Camel Trek

The next morning, we were off on the excursion of a lifetime. We met our tour guide and driver, Omar, and four other folks who we were about to spend a very long road trip with and set off to the desert. This excursion took us through tiny berber villages, along very windy roads, breathtaking viewpoints, over snow-capped mountains, rocky desert, scrubby desert, to ancient kasbahs, to the largest film studio in Morocco, oasis and ruins, and deep gorges.  I know you want to know about the camels, so I’ll spare you the details on all this. Really, we saw so much. Anyway, on to the camels.  If you missed Part One, click here.

The first night, we stopped in the middle of nowhere at a little inn for dinner and to spend the night. Our tour group was awesome, and we shared dinner out of a big clay pot and laughed and told stories about being an expat. Everyone in our group was living in a different place than their home country: An couple from Seattle  living in Geneva, an Indonesian woman working for her embassy in Berlin, and her German friend studying chemistry in New York.

We camel trekked into the Sahara Desert the next afternoon at sunset. There aren’t really adequate words to describe the entire experience, really I can only tell small parts to give you the general gist. Like this:

  • Camels are weird. They have terrible breath, are very awkward to ride, make gross noises that sound like gagging and burping and don’t bite or spit. Their feet are huge round soft pads that are obviously better at walking in sand than human feet.
  • We left the camels and climbed a giant sand dune right before sunset. The sand was so incredible. Imagine a very fine powder, now imagine it burnt orange color, and imagine the largest amount of it you can, multiply by 1000. That’s the dune. This sand fills your shoes and is impossible to climb. Like climbing water. When we go to the top, and, I’ll admit, I was quite winded from the exertion, the view took my breath away again.
  • The sky goes for as far as you can see, 360 degrees. I swear, I could see the earth bend on the horizon. It’s hard to describe. If you’ve ever taken a picture during that “golden hour” when everything is just glow-y and perfect, it’s like that. The sunset on the dunes turned them from sand to huge orange tidal waves agains the almost-purple sky. This moment, and it was only a few minutes, was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
  • After the sun dropped, the temperature did too. We ran down the dune, filling our shoes, pants and hair with fine powdery sand. I’m telling you, it’s not that annoying sand that you try to leave at the beach. This is the sand that you should lay on with no towel, that you should ski down, roll in, jump in.  It really feels good in your shoes.
  • We rode the camels further into the desert until we arrived at the camp. It’s a permanent camp that consists of a handful of big tents made of camel hide/fur. We had dinner in one of them. Delicious.
  • We went out under the stars and sat around the campfire. Our hosts played drums, sang, told jokes. They let us try the drums, we sang a Christmas carol, and couldn’t come up with any jokes of our own. The moon was out, and almost full. It was so bright, or maybe because we were so far away from any other light, the moon was enough to see by. Margaux and I climbed the dune behind the camp after the campfire staring at the stars. Even with the moon, there were more stars than I’ve seen anywhere.
  • The next morning, we woke before sunrise. I walked out of the tent, looked up, and almost fell down. The sky. The moon had gone, and the stars. Oh my lord. The stars. I almost broke my neck looking at them. I’ve been places where you can see stars, Southern Utah, Big Bear, the middle of Maine, camping places, you know. But this. Incredible. BILLIONS…   This lasted only 15 minutes or so, because as soon as the sun was thinking about coming up, the stars began to disappear. The pre-pre-pre-dawn slowly erased the starts one by one from the sky.
  • We watched the sunrise from the top of another dune. We rode the camels in silence. The quiet is almost deafening. The sunrise was exactly the sunset in reverse, just mindblowing. We watched as the sun gently kissed the top of every dune in sight until the entire sun-side of the dune was lit up for the day.
  • We said goodbye to the camels and packed in for a long 10 hour ride back to Marrakech. Though the ride was long, the views of desert, mountains, towns, cities, people, rivers, and all the animals and plants we passed kept me staring out the window the whole way. Poor Margaux, the windy roads were a little much for her, but we made it!

I know I’ve been a little over the top with this description, but seriously, I’m not adequately prepared to explain it in any other way. Just look at these pictures.

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