Morocco Part 3: Marracashed Out

Hello. I’m finally writing my last entry about our trip to Morocco in December. YAY! (…it’s about time) The rest of the trip went much more smoothly (see previous two posts). Our bus ride back to the city was around 11 hours with very short stops. Traveler Tip: Be prepared for this! We had thought that the bus ride would take about 8-9 hours and didn’t really consider the fact that we would not be able to get food. Sure, there were a few stands that sold mandarins, but that was it. So, that is all we ate that day.

Originally we had planned on hitting up Casablanca and Fes post-Sahara, but due to the lengthy travel times, we decided to stay in Marrakech and really soak up that city. We can always go back for the others. 🙂 With this new mindset, once we arrived in Marrakech and checked back into the Riad Eden, we felt like we were ‘home’.

The next four days were a blur. I’ll quickly recap the highlights:

Bahia Palace: This tops Marrakech’s tourist attractions. …Not sure why. It is beautiful, the tile-work is stunning, but it’s also just now being renovated, so most of it was under construction and poorly maintained. We did take some good pictures in there though and it was only a few Euro to roam around. You could breeze through it in less than an hour. Here are my husband and my reflection in a giant mirror:

Jardin Majorelle: Former Yves Saint Laurent hidaway turned memorial for the famous fashion designer. Seriously beautiful gardens filled with cacti and lush greenery offset by brightly colored buildings. Take a cab – it’s a far walk from the central medina. Wander around for at least an hour and enjoy the quiet peacefulness. Like I did:

Hammam: Absolutely the highlight of our time in Marrakech. We tried out spa hammam le Bain Bleu. It. Was. Heavenly. So for those of you that do not know what a hammam is, it’s a bathhouse that is basically essential in a desert climate like Morocco. After we got back from the Sahara, we still had sand everywhere and this is just what we needed. First you get led into a small warm room (looked like a little fancy grotto/cave) and the girls pour warm water all over you. (Traveler Tip: If you are modest, bring a swimsuit!) Then, they cover you with oil and let you lay there on hot stones for about 10 minutes. They return with rough mittens (sold all over the city btw) and scrub. you. down. Your whole body. Then cover your entire body in a mud mask. Another 10 minutes. They come back in and wash it all off. That whole process takes about 45 minutes. We finally felt clean! I’m not sure what a public hammam costs, but it’s worth it to splurge on the private one. Sorry, no pictures of this experience. 🙂

Souks: These are the shops that line the twisty, maze-like streets in a condensed pocket of town. Maps don’t even bother drawing them out – too confusing! Traveler Tip: Make sure you bring a good sense of direction. It’s easier by day when the sun is out and you can use that as a compass. At night, forget it! Always turn back to see what the street will look like as you return. Just allow yourself to get lost, it’s more fun. 🙂 We bought tons of souvenirs here. Just make sure you are ready to negotiate. One of the shopkeepers even taught me how to wear a turban:

Just call me Fatima.

Henna: This was the most disappointing part of the trip for me, so excuse me if I get agitated while I write. I was really excited to have this done on my hands as a little reminder that would stay with me for a little while after we got back. First of all, the women in Djemaa el-Fna are ruthless. They attack you from every angle with books and henna squirt pens. I finally relented to one woman that seemed particularly nice (and spoke good English). I told her I wanted something small and simple on the backs of my hands, even pointing to a picture of what I wanted in her booklet. She expertly and fluidly drew the first line… halfway up my forearm!! This pissed me off, but I wanted to stay pleasant. Even as I was telling her, “No, no, no, more simple, not so high up, not so much,” she kept at it until my whole arm was covered… “Don’t worry, I give you good price.” Jaro and I exchanged glances. Meanwhile, heraccomplice friend was doing the same thing on my other arm. I was extremely uncomfortable and kept trying to tell them to stop and they wouldn’t. But, I also didn’t want to move because I didn’t want to ruin what they had already done! I felt trapped. And annoyed. Finally, they finished after about only 15 minutes. I had to get tough when they continued to try to add more to the inside of my arms. Time for payment. Inside the book before she started, we had seen prices and it was around 40 Dirham for a simple, small design on one hand. She looks at me and says (completely serious), “Okay… normally this is 400 Dirham per arm, but I want to give you good price…” UM 400 DIRHAM?! Hell no. I thought it was going to be a 10th of the price. Then she reveals that she used the “long-term” henna, meant to last a full month. The prices in the book were for the “short-term” henna, that lasts only 2-3 days. Naturally, she chose not to tell me this until after they were done. I hadn’t even known there were different kinds. Why would I? I even told her that was a cruel trick, but she didn’t seem phased. Just “pay what you think is fair.” Okay… So then Jaro pulls out a 200 Dirham bill and hands it to her and she says, “Don’t insult me” and shoved it in his shirt pocket. How rotten! Finally, I told Jaro to just give her three hundred because that was “all we had” (a good trick that worked when shopping in the souks, here not so much) and she finally accepted. Here is the funny thing: Once we handed it over, she and her “friend” grabbed my arms (smearing some of the work they had done) and started drawing up the insides! Even as I protested, they continued. Obviously, this means that we paid WAY more than was fair for the work they had done, so they pretended like they were giving me this bonus art, when really, it should have been included in the first place. And then some! I should have been painted from head to toe in damn henna for the price that I paid. I walked away angry, but not enough to make a scene. Once it dried and I peeled it off, it looked horrendous. Sloppy and ugly. …And it washed off in about a week. Sigh.

At least it looked good for this picture.

On our way out of the city on the last day, we hailed a taxi in one of the round-abouts. We had 60 Dirham left in our pockets. The driver said a one-way to the airport was 80 Dirham. We pleaded, he gave in. As we arrived at the airport, we handed over our last 60 Dirham. Understanding smiles were exchanged and we were off. Officially Marracashed Out.

Overall, we loved the city, the country, the food, the people, everything. Can’t wait to go back!

xxx

Morocco Part 1: Sahara Deserted

Hello faithful readers! I’m sorry it has taken me so long to share our experience in Morocco. By now, many of you have seen the photos on facebook and have a general understanding of our trip. In short, it was one of the most fascinating (and terrifying) weeks of our lives…

We arrived in Marrakech on a Thursday night. It was gloriously warm and breezy, compared to the constant rainy weather we have been experiencing here in the Netherlands. We had a reservation at a riad (former colonial mansion turned guesthouse, sort of like a B&B), who had a driver waiting for us in the arrivals hall. Nice! Right away, we were met with warm, friendly hospitality. Even though our driver spoke about 10 words of English, we were relieved to have small conversation. Here is a picture of our room inside Riad Eden:

Cozy!

For our first meal, we wanted to get a true Marrakech experience, so of course, we headed to the main square, Djemaa el-Fna. As we walked down the street, I felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie. So exotic and beautiful. And then… we are slammed knocked on our asses by the commotion in the square. Snake charmers trying to wrap snakes around Jaro’s neck (he, like Indy, hates snakes), henna painters grabbing my unadorned hands, and then there were the foodstall guys. Every single one targeted us to convince/persuade/trick us into eating at their stalls. They all have the same tactics “Chillax guys, come to MY stall.” And it was EXTREMELY aggressive. Like, I can’t really describe it. To a normal American, it’s borderline harassment. We finally caved and plopped down at a picnic table. It helped that an English speaking customer raved that it was delicious. Normally when we travel, we ask what their specialties are and this was no different. Until, it was. Massive plates of tasty couscous, tagines, salads, olives, bread, and kebobs were thrust in our faces. So was the 500 Dirham bill. (11Dhm to the Euro). Almost 50 Euro for a foodstall dinner with WAY too much food. We thought it was going to be around 10 bucks. Yikes. Traveler Tip: When in a country like Morocco, NEVER let the staff do the ordering for you. You will almost certainly be taken advantage of.

Bedtime. Aside from my three nightmares of people trying to break into our room (very real and scary.. Jaro had to wake me up out of one because I was going nuts), it was very pleasant. The next morning, we woke up expecting to lounge around the riad and maybe explore a bit more before the bus ride to M’Hamid, aka the end of the road/edge of the Sahara. The internet (which, you know, is always accurate) reported that the bus was at 12:30pm and was 8 hours. WRONG! Try 11:15am and closer to 10 hours. Which, thankfully, our riad owner informed us. We had to hurry to the other side of the city, get our tickets, get some food and board. Traveler Tip: Never trust that the information on the internet is accurate. Despite that shortcoming, the bus was really comfortable, clean and, most importantly,body odorless.

Arrived at 10pm in M’Hamid. Since our kasbah was on the edge of town, the bus dropped us off there directly. As we started walking to the kasbah, a figure emerged from the shadows. Sadly, both our first thought was, “Is this person going to hurt us?” We were in the middle of nowhere! But no, he was a kind employee of the kasbah coming to greet us. After a delicious chicken and olive tagine, it was time for bed. This was our room at the Sahara Services Kasbah:

Slightly less glamorous, but hey, how much can you really do with a mud-brick room?

The next morning started our trek into the Sahara! We set off on ourtrusty steedswobbly camels, guided by a sweet Berber man named Omar. Again, about 10 words of English, but by the end of the ride, we were friends. He even taught Jaro how to wrap a turban. Then, we waited at a rest area for about an hour for our 4×4 driver to take us the rest of the way to Erg Chigaga, a 40 km stretch of humungous dunes, some even 300 meters high! By camel, to go the whole way would have taken 3 days. NO THANKS!

This is when we had official scare #1. As we were driving along, the driver (who spoke ZERO English.. none.. not one word), stopped and he motioned for pictures so we got out and started snapping away. After about 10 minutes, we were ready to continue on.

The car wouldn’t start.

After the driver fumbled around under the hood, he shrugged his shoulders. We were hours from town by car. As he tried to start it again, we noticed a lit up key symbol on the dash. Again, motioning, we try to explain for automatic start cars, you need to have the key in the car. Basically through sign language, we understood that there was a lot of excitement when he left town and forgot it.

You are probably all thinking: No cell service in the Sahara! No food! No water! Actually, we had all those things. But, as our driver started walking away from the vehicle, leaving us there, we started to wonder about our safety. It seemed like he was trying to get a signal (we hoped). So what do two Americans do when stranded in the Sahara?

Find some rocks and play bocce! …That was fun for about 5 minutes. Our driver came back and we managed to understand that he was able to call town and someone was going to bring the key. Then he wandered off again. After being stuck out there for around two hours, you start to wonder. “What if we are being set up?” “What if Algerian bandits kidnap us?” We were less than 30km from the Algerian border. Julie was starting to panic.

Then suddenly, two men on a dirt bike appear out of nowhere and start approaching our car. From the opposite direction of town. And our driver was still off in the distance. Jaro and I looked at each other and shrugged. We couldn’t help but have a mixture of hope and fear. We were completely powerless and totally vulnerable.

And then, one of men held up the key and smiled. We were rescued!

After quite a bit more rough driving (they call it the ‘Berber massage’ because you bounce around in the car so much), we made it to camp right on the edge of the dunes. It’s exactly what you would imagine and more. Awesome. We got all set up, were fed lunch and then set off into the dunes to play (and take incredible pictures). We even got to sandboard on the dunes, which was really fun.

While I look legit (see above), Jaro was much better at it than I was.

After watching a beautiful sunset, we headed back to camp and found out we were the only ones staying at it. A little unsettling; it would have been nice to be around other travelers, but what can you do? There were two men working at the camp, a chef and a host (more or less… he kept us company and spoke broken English while the chef prepared everything). We sat at talked with them under the stars. What incredible stars they were! Wow. I have never seen the sky look like that.

We then set off for bed and realized it was only 9pm. But since our day was rather exhausting, I fell asleep before the end of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut that we had on the iPhone.

When we woke up the next day, we were so proud! We had just spent a night in the middle of the Sahara! And were alive! And not kidnapped! Traveler Tip: GO VISIT THE SAHARA DESERT. It was amazing.

Getting back to M’Hamid in the morning was no problem, except for a passing nomad group with around 100 camels that served as a roadblock for a bit. In a few hours, we were back at the kasbah and had the full day to explore the town. Since the only bus out was at 6am and we missed it, we decided had no choice, but to stay in M’Hamid for another night.

More on that, along with official scare #2, coming soon in the next post.

xxx