One of the primary reasons I chose to study abroad in Valencia was the potential to travel. At the top of my list of destinations: Morocco. Ever since I had read an article about Marrakech’s amazing street food while flying back from Turkey in 2010, the country was one of my top travel picks. It so happened that we planned on going right when Matt could come and visit (after the whole Fallas debacle). Instead of rearranging plans, he just decided to come along – yippee! Somehow, we ended up with a massive group again: me, Maddie, Alyssa, Matt, Brendan, Nick, Bill, and Jorge as the Americans, Dora and Peter the Hungarians, Jirka from the Czech Republic, and Mazin the Swede, with the latter buying his ticket less than 24 hours before our flight. Though the group was the same size as that for our Porto trip, from the get-go it was more haphazard and disjointed – as if almost to mimic the functional chaos of the lively city that awaited us. After much debate and a few communication snafus, we ended up booking a riad hostel near the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. A few of us decided to book a hot air balloon excursion while the group as a whole decided at least one night in the desert was a must. Having e-mailed several different companies, we picked one we liked and arranged for them to pick us up from the airport. Onwards, to Africa!
Being the experts at communication and timing that we are, Matt and I missed our first metro but luckily were still able to check in and board on time. The flight was only one and a half hours and we landed to the sight of a gorgeous sunset. Disembarkation and customs went smoothly and we easily found our transport from the desert excursion company, the coordinator Abdou. After making ATM withdrawal and currency exchanges to get dirhams, we climbed into a big van and were driven to near Jemaa el-Fnaa. We were incredibly glad Abdou was with us because the hostel was hard to find, even with his aid. Even at first glance, Marrakech was very different from Spain. The square was alive with food vendors, dancers, and monkeys. There were grilled food stalls, freshly squeezed juice, and carts stacked high with dried fruits and pastries.
We walked down the winding streets full of stray cats and Abdou joked that the hostel had no room for us. After our first taste of delicious mint tea, we realized this wasn’t a joke and wound and wove through the streets to reach another road where we would stay for the night. The city was bustling and full of stoic donkeys and the stop fronts were reminiscent of India. After we dropped our things off, we had dinner at a small cafe. Despite being super cheap, the chicken tagine I had was one of the best seasoned dishes I’ve ever had. We came back to the hostel and admired the gorgeous stars before heading to bed.
Matt, Alyssa, Bill, and I woke up early the next morning for our hot air balloon excursion. Bill wasn’t feeling too great the night before and hadn’t slept well, but still rallied up for our helium-propelled flight. We walked the darkened, winding streets to get to the meeting point, Cafe du France, at 5.30 am. Our driver picked us up and drove us the half an hour to the launch site. It was a rather entertaining ride as our driver was entertaining and at one point even hopped out of our still-moving vehicle and ran to the neighboring jeep, opened the door, and scared our future fellow ballooners, while we laughed uncontrollably. We got to the launch site, sipped on tea, and nibbled on breads as we met our (slightly spooked) companions: two Aussies, a Canadian, and an older British lady and her daughter, who was around our age.
As day broke, the balloon was inflated, we clambered on in, and drifted lazily into the sky as dawn broke around us. It was as if we were in a very slow, steady elevator and, in fact, most of us didn’t even realize we had taken off until we were several meters high. The ride was roughly an hour long and most of it was completely surreal. We did a “touch and go,” dipping down to the ground before rising back up. There were two other balloons in the distance and a gorgeous haze of clouds close to the land. The driver kept us entertained with his jokes as we wafted nonchalantly in the air. After landing, we ate a massive breakfast of assorted breads, jams, and fruits. We spent time watching a bunch of goats near the bathroom, then went off to ride the camels in La Palmeraie, an expanse full of palm trees (I named mine Reuben). On the way back, the driver sang a version of “Goodbye My Lover,” but replaced the references to a paramour with camel ones. We headed back to the hostel but got a little lost on the way back, distracted by the souks and their colorful wares.
Upon being reunited with the others, we moved back to the original hostel and, due to “miscommunication,” ended up splitting up, with Maddie, Alyssa, Matt, and I off on our own. The four of us headed to the Koutoubia Mosque and then hit the souks We walked and haggled and shopped, having fun looking at all the different things for sale. We decided to follow a friendly looking guy to the dyers’ market and were severely disoriented, but learned how to tie headscarves from the shopkeeper. We headed back to the square for lunch, at a restaurant overlooking the bustling crowds. I had kefta before we headed back to the souks. I enjoy haggling while the others generally didn’t – fine by me. We stopped at a spice store and marveled at all the multitude of jars filled with earthy, fragrant crumbs.
Tired from our early morning, we soon made our way back to the hostel and napped for a while before heading back to the souks and then the square for dinner. The food stall owners in Jemaa el-Fnaa were incredibly persistent, waving menus and promises of the best prices in front of our faces noisily as we walked and not taking no for an answer. We made a few false promises to return, in order to escape from their soliciting, which worked until we made the mistake of walking back past a stall after we had eaten at another. The owner called me out for having “no religion!” and yelling at me somewhat angrily. We just walked away, stomachs already full with skewers and eggplants, yum. Throughout the trip, but particularly at this dinner, Matt was obsessed with the bread and any food on a stick. Walking around some more, we ran into an incredibly jolly, rhyming shopkeeper, started an argument between two orange juice stall owners, and bought a box full of assorted sweets before returning to the hotel and resting before our early pick-up tomorrow.
We piled into the van early next morning for the start of our three-day excursion and began the long drive to Mergouza. We stopped at a village used for lots of movie and television filming, including season 3 of Game of Thrones. We climbed around to the top of the mountain, stopping to watch a man doing tea and saffron paintings. More driving led us to a movie studio and a man on the side of the road with a snake that tried to kiss Matt. We stopped periodically to “Japanese” (as our driver oh-so-politically-correctly called photo-taking) at roadside vantage points where men sold colorful geodes that twinkled in the daylight. Sometime during the travels, the boys made up a song about children drowning in a pool because that’s the kind of good people I associate myself with. (Sarcasm. :P) We stopped at Dades Gorge at an adorable hotel with a gorgeous view of mountains and stars at night.
The second day of our excursion began with more driving. We stopped at a small village to see some carpet making, but as soon as I got down, I felt ill. Our guide was incredibly kind and took me to a house to lay down until I felt better. Matt came with me and they checked on me periodically, bringing me tea; their hospitality was wonderful and more than I could have expected. I felt better in time to see their lovely collection of carpets, handmade and gorgeous. We kept driving and made it to Merzouga after some water drama I luckily slept through. Then we hopped on camels and rode into the sunset. No, really. Our journey took us through Erg Chebbi, a patch of dunes in the Sahara. The ride was a bit over an hour and we had fun joking around, even as the hot sun beat down on us. After dismounting, we climbed to one of the highest dunes to watch the sunset and sand board and sand ski. It was my first time on any sort of board so I was proud of myself for only wiping out at the end of my run. We then walked to the camp where we’d be staying the night and had yet another tagine for dinner. The group then gathered for a bonfire, which I watched and photographed from afar. A group of us sat with the guides for a bit, who entertained us with random riddles as we sat and stared at the gorgeous, starry sky.
We woke up at an ungodly hour the next morning, but it was completely worth it to see an amazing sunrise over the desert, with some of the most gorgeous light I’ve ever seen. We stopped at a hotel in Mergouza to rehumanize and eat breakfast before the long drive home. We stopped a couple times, for lunch and pictures few times. At one of the stops I bartered for a geode without even leaving the comfort of our van. At one point, we stopped to check if we had a flat tire, when the van started rolling forward, towards a small cliff nearly pinning Nick to a tree. Luckily, the boys were mostly out of the vehicle and able to stop it fairly promptly, so no one was hurt. The tire was changed quickly and we made it to the hostel in good time, returning to the cafe from the first night for dinner. While eating, we played a game where we’d make a prediction about the future and point to the person it was most likely to come true for (e.g. “Most likely to become a reality TV star”); this led to amusing outcomes and kept us entertained for quite some time.
For our last day in the city, we set out together but decided that splitting up would be less cumbersome with a group our size. Our little foursome ventured back to the souks for some final shopping. I got told repeatedly that I bartered “like a Moroccan woman,” earning me several guffaws and high-fives. We were going to see a tannery but the smell made me sick so instead we got crepes and headed back to the hostel and then the airport. The security woman in the women’s line was oddly gropy, but the guys got lucky and Brendan and Mazin were able to smuggle past the turtles they had bought on the first day. Brendan’s turtle, Jazmine, is still alive, as far as I know, but Mazin’s Abdul died a few weeks after getting back. Oops. There was a two-hour delay for our flight, but aside from that our return was uneventful and thus ended our whirlwind five days in the vibrant country of Morocco.