(Click on a picture at the bottom to pull the full sized gallery up!)
I arrived in Marrakech about twelve hours before Fabian and Philippe, a friend of mine from Paris. They had never met previously and were planning to reconnaissance at the airport and take a taxi together to go find the Riad (hotel) I had booked. My taxi driver dropped me off outside the walls of the inner old city (the “Medina”) and said “In there!”. So, off I went in search of this Riad. Upon crossing the gates to the Medina I suddenly found myself in an utterly unfamiliar culture, dressed in my “free travel” attire, including a pink polo shirt, dragging, clickety clack, my suitcase behind me. Clarion calls echoed down the the cobble stone street: “American coming”!!!! I was approached by a ten (?) year old boy who asked if I needed a place to stay. I showed him my hotel address and he said he’d gladly take me there. Down we went through narrow curving passages, through what looked like secret doorways, and under covered sidewalks. I had a growing sense of alarm that I was being led straight into the arms of this boy’s gang of thugs. Luckily for me, however we finally did arrive at my destination. Feeling generous (the Stockholm Syndrome?) I offered him three Euros (about $4). The kid looked disgusted. “What am I suppose to do with this?!” he shouted. “C’mon, surely you can give a poor kid like me more than that!” Flabbergasted, I turned from him and entered the Riad.The manager of the Riad at the time was a super friendly young man named Taja. His English was sketchy (Moroccans speak mostly Arabic and French), but he liked me and gave me his best room which would be the most comfortable for me and my two friends arriving later. I showered and climbed into bed for a nap. Staring at the ornate walls and ceiling I felt very far from home, but comfortable and I quickly fell asleep. After waking, I went downstairs and awaited the arrival of Fabian and Philippe. Taja offered me tea, which I accepted, and he sat down to try to talk to me while he smoked and drank coffee. He was wearing a gorgeous bracelet and I mentioned that I liked it whereupon he immediately took it off and gave it to me. “It’s for you,” he said. I protested, but he insisted. So far, so good on the hospitality. When Fabian and Philippe arrived it was dark and they looked like they had known each other forever. Fabian went up to the room, but Philippe, being more gregarious and speaking fluent French of course, sat down to talk with Taja and I. This was when I discovered Taja was not just crazy, but evil. In rapid French he began telling Philippe some short stories of his exploits: how he had spent time in Virginia working for the CIA (I don’t think so!), how he worked for a while smuggling guns and Mauritanians into Morocco (maybe), how he, James Bond-like stole a gun off the belt of a cop while on a moped (the subsequent crash killed the cop…yeah, right) and how good he was at stealing stuff. Suddenly I stared down at what was now an evil stolen bracelet. Anyone know the way to Mordor? Philippe listened non-jugmentally, to keep him talking. At one point he said that it was his mission in life to kill homosexuals. Philippe smiled, translated for me, and asked if he should tell him. (NO WAY!). That’s the end of Taja for now. The rest of the highlights of Morocco I will present in bulleted highlights.
- Of all my trips, Morocco left me with a different impression than any other place. I was almost always somewhat uncomfortable and I don’t have good feelings about it, like I would like to go back. Yet, at the same time, I learned more new things on this trip than almost anywhere else I’ve been. First, the medina of Marrakech is not for one who gets sensory overload easily, and I do, being borderline Aspergerish. Serpentine streets that are unmapped and packed with people, shops full of color and noise; just a feeling of total chaos to my mind. I almost had the desire to sit right down, put my hands over my ears and start rocking back and forth! And the bargaining. Evething is to be bargained for and I am just too nice to use that method of exchange effectively; or even really understand the process. Then, beneath it all, under the smiles of those wanting your business, I had a sense people were thinking “f- American!” It was the first time I had ever felt disliked for simply being where I’m from.
- The car that Philippe and Fabian acquired to rent, with the help of Taja (yikes), looked fine at the start and was way cheaper than using a brand name. Philippe got it out of the narrow streets of the medina with just an inch to spare in a few places. Once on the road, however, we discovered a problem whose seriousness only became evident when we were already too far to take it back: the breaks were worn to the bone. They screeched loudly, barely slowed the car, and we were heading over the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara Desert. We discovered a way to make it stop though: switch it into first gear! I made sure that I included a picture of the roads over the mountains below. We are all lucky we survived, and I give credit to the driving skill of my companions.
- One of my most unusual, and charming, places I’ve ever stayed was in a cave in the middle of the mountains. If you aren’t claustrophobic or cave phobic, it was actually quite comfortable. The hiking in the area was striking, especially as the sun sank in the sky. We noticed a herd of sheep passing through the valley and saw that they were being followed by nomads. We passed by them later and were offered tea. They contrasted sharply with my friend themodernnomad.com.
- Once over the mountains the land became very dry, except for the thriving farming areas near the river valleys (the closest I’ve seen to true oasis) and soon we were in an area full of date palms. It turns out dates are one of the major products of Morocco, though there were great stretches where they grew naturally. We got out and ate them right off the trees. If they had bugs, well, ignorance is bliss. Extra protein.
- The highlight of the trip for me was that we made it to the Sahara Desert. I can barely express how beautiful it felt to be there in person. It was quite windy and it blew the sand into slowly shifting drifts. We had a blast seeing how far we could jump off the dunes and taking pictures. We stayed until the sun began to set. The sand was much redder than I expected, and it makes a striking contrast to the other sands in my sand collection.
- Our last stop was Essaouira on the Atlantic Coast. This town, with it’s fishing commerce, felt a bit Portuguese with all its colorful boats. It was fun having lunch there; we picked a selection of all kinds of seafood off a large platform and it all arrived shortly after. I made sure I requested mine to be cooked well 😉
- Philippe and I dropped Fabian off at the airport on the way back to Marrakech, and then went to drop off the car too. We stayed one last night at our original riad, and we were not surprised what we found when we got there: Taja had disappeared after stealing all the money from the place.