When we stepped off the bus in Marrakesh, we began to seriously question the Shalala’s decision to visit Morocco at the end of August. The heat was so thick the air was heavy in our lungs and we felt like we had stepped into a sauna, a dramatic change from the breezy shore of Essaouira. We made for our hostel in a taxi who dropped us off at the end of an alley and told us our hostel was down there after a left and a right. Neither of us felt very well from some food poisoning so that plus the heat and the fifty pounds on our backs properly motivated us to find our hostel quickly where we were greeted by the couple of “bros” running the joint. Lauren spent hours trying to find us a hostel in Marrakesh with a good cleanliness rating within our budget, and the best we could find was this one providing a mattress on the floor with stained sheets and a stinky bathroom. It would not have been as bad if we both weren’t feeling unwell and spent most of our time in the room. At 5am the next morning I woke up after feeling something crawling on me. Yup you guessed it, bed bugs! We had a room booked in a four star hotel within an hour and were out of that room as fast as we could check into our new one. Learn from us and just pay the extra money to stay in a hotel in Marrakesh.
We also had some other important business to take care of in Marrakesh before doing any exploring. While in Essaouira we learned from a fellow traveler about a special zone in Europe which allows for the borderless travel. We were aware of the borderless travel, but not the important restriction that came with it for long term travelers. When we entered Europe in June we unknowingly started a clock that limited our time in most of Europe to 90 days out of 180 days. Had we left Paris just a few days later we would have been in jeopardy of not being able to meet up with our parents on the rendezvous we had already planned and paid for with them. After hours of research on our phones we thought the best solution was to get a visa to one of the countries in the Schengen zone to allow us to stay longer. We found the French consulate in Marrakesh and paid them a visit which did not go well to say the least. They were extremely unhelpful and dismissive so we decided to buy a sim card to make some calls and find somebody that hopefully spoke some english.
I dialed the number for the consulate at least fifty times, so many that I felt like I was going insane because I kept getting the same message in French which I was told by the hotel maitre d’hotel the message was saying the phone number was not valid. This was the phone number given to us by the consulate and on their website so I was literally losing my mind. By some miracle on the fifty first attempt the phone actually rang and took me to a French menu where I just pushed buttons until I got somebody on the line to ask for an English speaker. An uncomfortably long hold period later I finally got somebody on the line that I could speak to about applying for a visa. Thirty minutes later we had gotten through all the details of it and it was time to schedule an appointment at the consulate which is where we ran into our dead end. The earliest appointment was two weeks out and after our flight back to Paris. Feeling heartbroken and defeated we did not know what to try next and decided it would be easier to fly home and sort it out in DC before we had to get back to Europe to meet with my parents in Greece, but that is a story for later.
After all our visa drama we finally had some time to get out in Marrakesh and really see the red city. We walked to the center of the medina, the Jemaa El Fna square. We wandered around looking at all the little shops lining the square and the alleyways branching off. Slowly moving away from the square down the alleyways it hit me when I began to feel lost that these were the suks that everyone had told us about getting lost in. Never mind the danger of getting lost we were having a good time window shopping and to our surprise we were not getting hassled much by the shop owners to look in their shops. Everyone had told us horror stories about getting brutally harassed by restaurant owners and shop owner to buy something from them. I think going in the morning it was less busy than in the evenings when the city really wakes up.
It took us two five-hour trains and an overnight stopover in Casablanca to make our way from Marrakesh to Fes where we were to rendezvous with the Shalala’s for our desert tour together. The train ride to Casablanca was a memorable ride in second class. The “air conditioning” if you could even call it that did nothing for the stifling heat while we waited motionless on the tracks for a good 45 minutes shortly after leaving Marrakesh. In our opinion Casablanca is not worth visiting, and we are glad we only spent one night here to break up our trip. We left with the impression that it is just a dirty city with loads of street vendors selling used goods. We learned our lesson and went first class on the train from Casablanca to Fes for the extra 10DH ($1) and it was well worth it to get slightly better AC and a cabin for six which was only half full.
When we got to Fes, Lauren finally got the hammam massage she had been looking forward to since we got to Morocco. Not long after Lauren left, I got bored and called Addison to see if they had rested back up after their tour of the medina that morning. He was out getting some beer and wine for the night (we knew we would be partying with the Shalala’s!) and swung by our hostel on the way back to drink a beer with me on our rooftop.
I (Lauren) am going to interject Bryan’s post to tell you all about my hammam experience because it was very unique! Hammams are essentially public bathhouses. There are separate ones for women and men. Before indoor plumbing was common in households, people would go to these public bathhouses once a week to wash themselves. Today, they are still commonly used in Morocco, although to appease to tourists they’ve added private hammams and spa treatments to make a visit there more luxurious. The manager of our hostel, Mohommad (you may notice in our Morocco posts that just about every Moroccan man we met is named Mohommad; they’re not all that creative when it comes to names…), knew a great place for a hammam visit, so we set up a time to go. He personally walked me there and talked to the women at the front desk. They all were very excited to see him, so I knew I’d get a good deal. They unfortunately said they had let a large group in ad it would be better if I could come back in an hour. I told them I couldn’t because I had dinner plans with friends, so they said I could go into the public hammam and also get a 15 minute massage. I agreed, said goodbye to Mohommad, and one of the women at the front desk led me into the back. She took me to a counter and handed me a plastic basket and told me bluntly to take off all my clothes. I put all my clothes into the basket, and she asked if I had a bathing suit. I said no, and she said that was fine and handed me a paper thong. Oh, yeah.
She then led me into a sauna-like room, which was lined with overflowing sinks along two walls and marble blocks which women were sitting on. The women were all practically naked like me, and I could overhear their conversations enough to realize they were the large group of Australians that had been let in before me. There were also a handful of Moroccan women that brought their own soaps and washing supplies and washed themselves off and gossiped. That’s when I knew I was getting the true hammam experience! There was a Moroccan woman walking around in her underwear washing women sitting on the marble blocks. She motioned for me to come over and sit down by the large group. I was seated by one of the overflowing sinks. Each sink had hot and cold spigots. The woman dipped a large plastic scoop in the water and poured it over my body repeatedly. She then grabbed some soap and washed almost my entire body. Afterwards, she rinsed me off and told me to stay there. I began talking with the Australians and learned they actually didn’t know one another, but they were all on a 2 week women’s tour group of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. One by one, the girls were motioned to the end of the room where 3 elevated marble slabs were. Large women with exfoliating gloves would ask them to lay face down on the slab. They would then scrub the women, hard. And all over the body. You could see dead skin collecting as they scrubbed. They then asked the girls to roll over and repeated the process on the front of the body. The girls then sat up and had their necks and arms scrubbed. They then rinsed the girls off and put mud on their faces. After a while, a woman would wash the mud off their faces and then proceed to wash their hair. It took me two hours of sitting int hat steaming room to get scrubbed and washed because I was behind that large group. After getting scrubbed my skin felt incredibly soft and sensitive to the touch. While waiting, all us women would splash cold water on each other. Afterwards, I was brought into a bright and cooler room to wait for a massage.
I was worried about getting back to the hostel in time to meet Bryan and the Shalala’s, so I walked into the massage room to check the time. Yikes. I had only 30 more minutes before I HAD to leave. I told the massage lady this, but she didn’t totally understand English. Luckily, a woman standing there did and translated for me. The massage lady agreed to massage me next. The massage was so light to the touch I could barely feel it, but I’m also used to super deep tissue massages (shout out to Becky at Rejuvenations Massage Therapy). The best part was the cheek massage, which I’ve never had before—maybe she thought I smiled too much and clearly overworked my cheeks? Afterwards, I quickly rinsed off the oil and went back to the counter to retrieve my clothes. They gave me a bottle of water which I chugged. After 2 hours in a sauna without a drop to drink I was THIRSTY! Upon checking out, the woman that massaged me apologized for the long wait. I told her, “Pas de probleme!” I knew I was going in after a large group, so I wasn’t upset at all, and I was glad they accepted my request to skip the massage line. Even if they hadn’t, I probably would have just skipped the massage—the hammam experience was all about the scrubbing and washing anyways. I went back to hostel feeling clean and like a new person! Okay, back to Bryan…
That night we all went out in the medina to do some shopping and have a late dinner. The shopping in Fes was similar to what we had seen in Marrakesh, but just a bit more spread out. Addison was so lucky to have us all there because the group ganged up together in harassing him on a few occasions, great bonding experience for all! However, I warn you to harass with caution for fear of the wrath of grumpy Addison which we heard many stories about from his parents. Just when you thought we had lost these pictures, Addison.
Early the next morning we all piled into a van together and set off for the desert. It was a long day in the van, but it was very interesting to watch the landscape change ever so slowly as we moved along our heading. The most bizarre juxtaposition were the lush green palm tree covered valleys dotted along the way right next to the arid mountains containing them. The mountain range that we drove through was also very peculiar as a sting of mountains would pop up out of nowhere and then it would be flat again on the other side. This happened several times along the way like the mountains were on a pilgrimage somewhere.
Many of the towns we passed through looked relatively new and abandoned. I believe we were told that the government builds these towns and basically gives the homes away in an effort to populate these more remote areas. When the desert finally came into view it first appeared as another string of mountains in the distance. It was not until we got closer that the difference was discernible, and the most remarkable sight was the literal and proverbial line in the sand where the desert started and ended. We could see several towns along the horizon dotting the edge of the desert making me wonder how often these towns get buried in sand?
Apparently, we made too many pit stops along the way and we were running late for our camel ride into the desert. After a couple pictures they threw me up on the first camel who was ironically the only one moaning and foaming at the mouth. Both of these characteristics made me feel just so comfortable after hearing Addison’s dad, Michelangelo, tell us about how far camels can spit and that their spit is actually mostly very acidic stomach acid. The camel saddles had little handles to hold onto which reminded me of ones on a teeter totter.
After everyone was up on their camel our tour guides tied them all up in a line and started walking us out into the desert. Eventually my camel stopped moaning and foaming at the mouth, but instead began to chew loudly the rest of the way, so I affectionately called him Chewy. Michelangelo quickly made friends with the camels and after petting Addison’s camel on the head a few times created a monster when the camel constantly wanted his attention and more pets the rest of the way. It took me a little longer to work up the courage to give a camel a pet on the head. Lauren tried a few times to give my camel a little pet on the head, but he ducked her hand every time and gave her a look of warning. The one time he did touch Lauren was to wipe his foamy mouth on her pant leg. We found out the next day that the camel I rode was the youngest (a teenager) and thus the most rebellious in spirit.
We rode into the night because we were so late, and we could hear ATV’s throttling over the dunes around us and see their lights as they approached. I silently prayed that the camels would not be spooked by them. When we made it to camp it was time to get off the camels which was an even stranger feeling than when we got on them. The camels would lower themselves front to rear going back and forth a couple times as they work themselves down gracefully which I can only describe as feeling like riding a falling leaf down to the ground or the gentlest bucking bronco ride ever.
In camp each couple got their own tent that could sleep about six people and we even got our own little bathrooms! This was luxury camping at its best and nicer than some hostels we have stayed in! My favorite part of spending the night in the desert was the amazing night sky we got to see. It is easy to forget just how many stars there in the sky with how many get lost in the light pollution of our cities. Our ancestors lived with a totally different night sky than most of us know today. After our great dinner the guys running the camp played their drums around the campfire and sang some berber songs for us.
When they finished and handed the drums to the Shalala’s and told them it was their turn next. I 100% figured this was just a joke, and they would take them back for one more song to close down the night. They did no such thing. Instead they pressed until they got a song out of them and it was a pretty good one with Addison actually knowing how to play the drums. Thanks for taking one for the team there guys! Wait what? It is Lauren’s and my turn next, shit. Knowing there was no getting out of it we laid down a beat following Lauren’s lead since she also played the drums. And around the circle they went onto the Asian group from San Francisco next until we had all played them a song. Then the unexpected they went back to the start of the circle and this time told the Shalala’s that they had to sing too this time! Without hesitation Michelangelo starts belting out a song in what sounded like Arabic while Addison and Sapphire backed him up on the drums and his mom, Cleopatra, danced. Knowing we were next and hoping deep down they would call it quits after their performance my mind raced for what song we could sing. Nothing came to mind. The Asian group knowing what was coming propositioned that they would sing if Lauren and I played the drums for them to get through this together. We laid down a beat while they sang an old backstreet boys song all the while the camp staff were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
We all woke early the next morning to watch the sunrise which Michelangelo insisted we were all facing the wrong direction until the sun broke over the horizon. Just walking up a small dune to watch the sunrise we all realized how exhausting it would be to walk a long distance through the desert with how loose the sand is. After breakfast we rode the camels back out of the desert and saw many other groups doing the same. We all looked like we were on a pilgrimage back to society. The cool weather of the morning disappeared quickly on our way out of the desert making us all appreciate the AC in the van when we got back.
We had another long day in the van to get to our destination for the night in the Dades Mountains. On the way there we passed by more lush valleys and through and impressive gorge where Michelangelo added to his growing rock and fossil collection. Our hotel for the night was the most luxury Lauren and I had seen for many months! We also had a five star meal at the hotel which was all included in our package deal. If we had the same meal back home it could easily have cost what we paid for the whole three day package, so we all went to bed very satisfied that night.
The last day of the tour was again another long day in the van with a few stops along the way. One of the stops along the way was at Ait Ben Haddou Kasbahs which was an old palace built on a hill. We climbed up to the top and enjoyed the views of the surrounding valleys. We would not have been able to find our way to the top without the help of Shalala’s parents who speak Arabic and could ask the shop venders for directions through the labyrinth they created to persuade tourists to pay for a guide to the top. The end of the trip took us back through the high Atlas Mountains not far from Imlil and where we had been hiking about a week prior. Lauren and I had to fly out early the next day so we had one last dinner with the Shalala’s before saying our goodbye’s.
Very early the next morning Lauren and I woke up and got in a taxi to make it to the airport by 4:15AM for our 6am flight. It took us about an hour just to get through the line for check in which is not available online ahead of time at the Marrakesh airport. We head for security and get through quickly, and then we see the lines for customs in front of us. We both have the panic moment realizing it is going to be extremely close getting through these lines and making our flight with only about 45 minutes and our boarding time starting in ten minutes. Within ten minutes we know there is no way in hell we are going to make it through in time with how slow it is moving. Lauren goes to plea with a security officer to allow us to skip the line to make our flight, and all she says is “you’re not going to miss your flight. Get back in line” well at least they are helpful and considerate. We hear them making last calls for flights over the loud speakers calling for passengers individually. They were not calling for our flight yet with only 10 minutes before takeoff! We also had two more flights for the day lined up after this one and a bag in storage in Paris scheduled for pick up with your computers in it! For a moment I contemplated the possibility that we were in a deodorant commercial for protection against stress sweat. After several more attempts pleading with the security guard, she allowed us to skip the last part of the line with 5 minutes before our departure time. Another 25 minutes pass just waiting on the couple of people ahead of us at our customs window and we are in disbelief of how broken their customs system is here. Running up to the gate we disturb the three personnel having a conversation, they scan our passes and we run down the stairs to find a few other passengers waiting at a doorway with a man in a neon vest. Now we are waiting on the bus to take us to the plane. Stepping onto the plane 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time it dawns on me why they do not allow online check in at Marrakesh. Their system is so broken they want to know who is physically present in the airport for the flight and they just hold the planes until they have everyone on board. We took off about 5 minutes after we took our seats.