Short Trips: Marrakech, Morocco

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I am so incredibly happy to be writing this for you all to read. I am also really sad - hence why it's taken so long - because writing this all down made me insanely nostalgic. I spent about a week in Morocco last December and it quickly became one of my fondest memories and favorite places on this earth. Simply put, I fell in love with the country, its people, food and just everything. And I want to tell you all about it!

*This is a LONG post, so saddle up and get ready*
**The photos are also not of the best quality... #iphone5problems


We flew into Marrakech from Paris - for extremely cheap, even though we definitely paid the price of taking the flying McDonald's..

Upon arrival, one of my roommate's debit cards was eaten by the airport ATM, and of course it was way after hours, but we made friends with a security man who sorted out the situation as best as he could. With drowsy eyes and a stack of Moroccan dirham, we grabbed a cab, negotiated a price and sped off to our inner-city hostel.




Now, Marrakech is a maze. Literally. There are no street signs at times, and I'm convinced there are underground tunnels that locals use because they pop up out of corners far too often. Our cabbie dropped us at the entrance of a pedestrian street, what we would soon learn to be the first of many confusing paths. Two boys sitting on the curb immediately hopped up and started leading us down the road.

Two things I know you're thinking right now.
1) Why did we follow them? It sounds super sketchy...
2) Have we ever watched Taken?

Well, in true pack fashion, we huddled together, taking care to survey our surroundings just in case. I had an insane amount of adrenaline rushing through me from my heightened night senses in a new city. I kept seeing the hostel sign along walls we passed, so I figured it was okay. And truth is, they were scrawny, I knew we could take them.

So we arrive at the hostel entrance and our unrequested tour guides hold their hands out for cash. Lesson #1: Morocco is HUGE on tipping.

The next morning, we woke up early early early for our trek into the desert. I'm not even sure what I packed exactly and it certainly ended up biting me in the behind, but we met our friendly, charismatic driver, Abdullah, at the hostel entrance and just knew this was going to be a trip.

And it was. An hour into our drive to the Atlas mountains west of Marrakech, we encountered a traffic jam. Most of the car was napping when we stopped, and our driver got out to see what was the matter. Any guesses? A landslide. Yes, I know, how often does that happen? Apparently the storms from days before had been strong enough to crumble several sections of mountain road, enough to keep us - and several other caravans - at a standstill for four hours. What was amazing, though, was how people didn't seem to mind entirely. At first, there was frustration, but then people seemed to just shrug and take the opportunity to socialize. Being from a Western country that places a high value on time, this was strange. But there was nothing we could do, so we kept busy listening to music, chatting and walking around the area.


 Luckily, a convenience store was located nearby (true to its name!) so we grabbed snacks, making the most of the random cheese and bread they sold. Other tour groups were saddled together in the line, and at one point we music battled an older bunch with Abdullah's traditional Moroccan music. It felt like a giant, impromptu street party. Although we were anxious to get into the mountains and on with our tour.

Eventually, they let us through, only to be stopped again shortly after. Seeing a theme?
We made the best of it again, taking the opportunity to use the bathroom (Turkish toilets, anyone?) and snack again. We switched over to our music by this point, and Abdullah hosted a jam party to Taylor Swift as his fellow driver friends looked on in envy - I got the sense that college-aged, American females were not a key demographic of desert tours.

And suddenly, we are off into the mountains again! We sped through the traditional tourist stops, gawking at views and then hopping back on track. I will never get over how incredibly large those mountains were, and the crystal clear sky as their backdrop.




Making our way into the mountains!
We stopped for the sunset in the Atlas mountains

 At this point, we had come to be friends with Abdullah, who taught us quite a bit about Berber culture. Night fell quickly, and the ride seemed to drag on forever, until we happened upon the desert. It was a seamless transition from city to small town to mountain town to no town and vice versa, ending with the Sahara instead of a city this time. Lights and people petered out. We stopped at the beginning of the trek, opting for a nighttime camel ride, because who can say they've done that? Camel riding is also very difficult, so our first encounter being in the dark was perhaps not the best idea, but we giggled our way to the Berber camp, which was complete with beds in tents, rugs for days and the most delicious tagine meal.

Only photo from our night camel trek...
Entrance to our humble abode for the night



Steamy tagine
 Packing mistake #1: The desert gets freezing at night, and if you don't bring warm clothes, you will be cold

Despite the amazing, hot tea we were served, I had brought only my alpaca sweater-jacket to keep warm. Rookie mistake. We snuggled up in our surprisingly comfy beds and pretended it wasn't freezing cold. In the morning, we all decided to take a jaunt up the large sand dune hill to get a better view of sunrise.

Camp in the morning

Packing mistake #2: Flip flops are not an all-terrain shoe

Cassie and I made the lucky decision to wear flip flops during our trek, and tried to climb the sand dune - successfully, but just barely. The views of the Sahara at sunrise were entirely worth it, though.

Please excuse my major bedhead...


How I really felt about the climb..
But nothing beats a Sahara sunrise!
Breakfast was a beautiful array of Moroccan pancakes/crumpets - still not sure of their name? - along with some other breakfast cookies, fresh orange juice, tea and coffee. We loaded up before hopping back on our camels, taking this opportunity to photograph every second of our desert trek. Personally, I think I mastered the art of camel-riding and fully credit it to my over-a-decade of ballet classes. Cassie, on the other hand, was close to being flopped off. You win some, you lose some. Isabella was our resident camel whisperer, and Emily's (the other one) could not be bothered to hang out with the pack.

Group photo turned out...dysfunctional.
Cassie rocking the camel ride




When we arrived at the end of the camel trek, we de-mounted and, of course, took several more photos with our trusty camels before tipping our guides and piling back into the SUV for our return trip. No one tells you how much camel riding hurts your booty...oh my!

On the way back, we stopped to see more sights and towns, one being the site where Game of Thrones is shot and another being the hometown of Abdullah. He treated us to lunch at a patio restaurant, because he's awesome, and pointed out places with interesting facts all day long. We snapped as many photos as possible, I fell and scraped my leg once (surprise, surprise) and we returned to the hostel safe and sound.



With no time to waste, we cleaned up and headed out to explore the souks that were just outside our hostel's door. The buddy system is a must here, since bargaining works better when you can bounce price negotiations off of a friend. Example:

Person 1: "Oh, I really like this teapot! Isn't this pretty?"
Person 2: "Yes, that is beautiful, you should get it!"
Person 1: "Sir (to shop owner), how much for this?"
Shop Owner: "200 dirham"
Person 2: "Oh, that is a lot, I don't know if you should spend that much..."
Person 1: "Yeah, it's a bit pricey."
Person 2: "How about 100 dirham?"
Shop Owner: "That is a quality teapot. 170."
Person 1: "150?"
Person 2: "150 is a good price!"
Shop Owner: "Okay, I'll take 150 just for you."

BAM. You got yourself a deal. I'm sure being a foreigner always ups the prices and I'm certain we still overpaid for some things, but I like to think we got a few deals as well.


After some scoping and light shopping, we found a nice place in the Place Jemaa el-Fnaa for dinner. The rooftop was chic and cozy at the same time - a very difficult thing to master, if you ask me. We loaded up on tagine (YUM) and recapped the past 72 hours over mint tea.





 The next day was filled with lots of shopping in the souks. We even stopped into the store that Carrie Bradshaw frequented in the Sex & the City 2 movie! The shopowner was more than excited to show us his photo with SJP. Out in the square, we browsed for tea and trinkets to bring back as gifts when out of nowhere, a snake charmer pops up and puts a snake on one of our friend's shoulders. YIKES. They proceeded to hold the slithery creatures very close to us, trying to get us to pay money for a picture holding a snake... Who would even do that?? After Cassie was forced to touch a snake, we peaced out, dropping some dirham in their collection box so as not to be bothered.

Tired and defeated, we grabbed fresh orange juice - literally, they squeeze the oranges in front of you - and headed back to the hostel to say goodbye to half of our group.








Because no trip to the Middle East is complete without hammam, those of us who remained hopped over to the Medina Spa to be pampered. If you've never had a hammam bath before, you are honestly missing out on life. They put you in an extremely hot, marble room, scrub you down and exfoliate your skin like crazy, then rinse you off and let you lay in the humidity for a while until you feel like a new human. The origin of this comes from when people wouldn't bath as frequently as we do today, so it makes sense how thorough and amazing it is. I walked out of there feeling like I was floating on air! Ah, how wonderful.

Post-hammam state of relaxation

After our eurphoric experience, we met up with Derek, a friend from Paris and headed to an early-turned-late dinner at Nomad, which is incredibly difficult to find as it is tucked away inside the souks on a rooftop that is only accessed through a tiny alley. Safe, I know. The food and experience was 100% worth the trouble we had finding it, though!



 We had some delicious dips and appetizers before indulging in tagines, kebabs and couscous. The place was more trendy than traditional, and we were able to order wine, which usually isn't available. During dinner, one of the prayer calls happened. Since our hostel had been so far into the maze of Marrakech, we hadn't heard the calls yet, but on the rooftop, the mosques calls to each other were crystal clear. It was such an intriguing experience.



Tough decisions


Morocco in December is slightly chilly, especially at night, so they graciously brought us these beautiful capes with hoods that Berber people wear - they're called akhnifs. It was perfect because we could easily eat while wearing them and they kept us toasty in the cold air.

The rooftop itself was beautiful, lined with bobble lights and multi-leveled. We explored a bit after our dinner and sat for a while drinking our routine post-dinner tea. What a life.





The next morning was slow, with breakfast at the hostel (those pancake things are to die for!) and some shopping before saying goodbye to Derek and Isabella. Cassie and I packed up our stuff and headed over to the hotel we had booked for our last night, Riad Edward. Of course, it was on the other side of the city, close to the New Medina, and the trek there was nothing but confusing. But we finally made it and checked in with the most wonderful hotel staff I've ever encountered. While we waited for our room to be made up, we sipped on tea and sampled Moroccan cookies in the courtyard/pool area.




Our room was on the balcony of the courtyard, an expansive suite with a giant bed (mind you, we'd been sleeping in twin beds since August) and gorgeous tiles everywhere. There were rose petals strewn everywhere and swan towels on the bed, which we decided meant this was our honeymoon suite. After a brief session of squealing and fawning over every detail of the place, we checked off one more to-do on our list: the Majorelle Gardens.




After a brief session of squealing and fawning over every detail of the place, we checked off one more to-do on our list: the Majorelle Gardens.






Located in the new medina, it was on the outskirts of town, but just a short trip from our hotel. It was crazy to see how different things were from the center of Marrakech to the new part of town. The streets were much more grid-like with stoplights and crosswalks, and buildings seemed more European than Moroccan. We enjoyed some window-shopping before walking through the Jardin Majorelle.

The gardens, created by Yves Saint Laurent, boast the famous Majorelle blue every chance they get. Tiles, hanging plants and cacti sprawled across the maze-like space. It was definitely a photo op if you've ever seen one. Unfortunately, we arrived near closing, so we didn't get a chance to stop in the Berber history museum. However, Abdullah had given us enough history during our desert tour, so I'm sure we didn't miss much. But if I'm ever able to go again, I'd try to make it back for that exhibit.





Cactus selfie?

 Before the sun set entirely, we wanted to make it back to the hotel - something about navigating the maze that is Marrakech at night did not seem appealing...
We arrived and ordered our dinner to the rooftop lounge, which was void of people. Truly a honeymoon experience.







The food from Riad Edward was literally like having a family cook for you. They made everything in house, brought it up to the terrace, served us wine and gave us blankets when it got chilly. The entire meal, from appetizers to soup to tagine to dessert was something out of a dream. Cassie and I sat on that terrace for as long as possible chatting about everything and looking back on all of the crazy adventures we'd been through since arriving in Paris four months prior. It was the best ending of an amazing vacation.


In the morning, we woke up early enough to grab breakfast by the fireplace in the main dining room of the riad before heading out to see our last sight in the city: Ben Youssef Medrasa. The medrasa is home to the largest Islamic college in Morocco, which has since been turned into a museum for tourists and Moroccans alike. The tile in this place was a work of art, and every wooden awning was carved with an insane intricacy. It was such a powerful place and eerily quiet for being situated in the middle of the city.




After exploring the medrasa and its gorgeous art, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and catch our flight. Our ride back to the airport, set up by Riad Edward, was 100 times nicer than the cab our first night, and complete with a little package of cookies from the riad staff - yum! Cassie & I did not want to leave Morocco, but alas, Paris and the end of our study abroad was waiting.






Can you tell I loved the tile?

I don't think a country has impacted me as much as Morocco did. The people, food, way of life and history there are both beautiful and simple. It is like a different world, but for some reason, it feels like home. I may be biased from my great experience, but I think it's the greatest place on earth.

And if you are ever lucky enough to have an opportunity to go, please do.

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