I struggled with this blog post. I stalled for over a week before finally organizing my thoughts and memories into words. Even now, five days since leaving this incredible country, I don’t even know where to begin really. Up until now I’ve been pretty adamant about writing this weekly blog as I go. Taking a few moments each day to check in and write down a few quick stories or memories as the days unfold. Attempting to make sure I don’t forget any of the details and trying to keep track of it all before Friday night quickly arrives and the blog is supposed to be posted on Saturday morning.
And now here I sit, in an airbnb in Athens, Greece on Monday morning…. just beginning to process it all. Reflecting back on the moments, the emotions, the scents, the colors. Trying to take it all in to the best of my ability with hopes of always keeping a piece of Morocco with me.
BACK TO THE START OF THE WEEK…
On our first morning in Morocco I did something I normally don’t do. In the midsts of feeling totally uneducated on Morocco and unsure of where exactly we wanted to visit (there are so many incredible locations to experience,) I hopped online and posted in a popular facebook travel group asking for “any Morocco recommendations?” anyone may have to share. I wrote that we were only here for a week and were planning on renting a car to eventually make our way to the desert.
Within the next two hours, I received over two dozen comments from female travelers around the world who had visited Morocco in the past. Two dozen comments, and 80% of them were negative and quite dull to read, if I’m being entirely honest. “I can’t believe you’d even consider renting a car there!” One woman wrote. “I would never. The roads are absolute chaos and there is apparently no such thing as turning signals.” Another woman wrote “The police are far too corrupt in Morocco to even consider driving as a tourist. We saw multiple police stops in the road where only tourists in rental cars were being pulled over. Just hire a tour guide. It’s much safer.” Another five woman agreed to this and began sharing contacts for their favorite tour-guides to hire.
A tour guide? For a ten hour drive to the desert? That sounded absolutely horrible. The girls and I hadn’t planned much for this trip (more like nothing, actually) but we all had our hearts set on getting a car and getting to the sand. Now what? We felt discouraged and unsure of what to do after being exposed to so much negativity and doubt from other females online.
“Fuck it.” I said. “I can drive. We’ll just be super careful and drive slow throughout the city. I can do it.” I half-confidently convinced the girls. “It’ll be so good to get out of Marrakech.”
And so, we spent one day in Marrakech before hitting the road.
20 HOURS IN MARRAKEcH
TRYING MY HARDEST NOT TO SHOP
The girls and I arrived early in the morning after being awake for what felt like 30 hours straight. We showered, stumbled around our riad (moroccan style accommodation) and then hit the streets by foot in long pants and shirt to explore the city. (Morocco is a muslim country, so woman are expected to have shoulders to knees covered at all times when out in public.)
Marrakesh was wild. As much as I don’t love to admit it, I’m still a bit of a sucker for all of the markets and souvenir shopping tourist cities like these have to offer. Bali pulled me into that scene for a few years when I first started traveling there. I am drawn in by the bright colors and unique styles of it all. Since taking time to get educated on the fashion industry, and learning that a majority of these products and goods are shipped from overseas by child laborers in unfit working conditions, I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted by it all. The stores, overflowing with hundreds of thousands of plastic bracelets, keychains, and cheaply made clothes. The shops, stocking their shelves with rows and rows of small plastic bottles filled with argon oil and local perfumes. It all feels like a waste to me. Who even needs any of this sh*t anyway? Does anyone ever consider what it is made out of or who it was made by? Why is there so much crap to buy?
We walked the markets and bought nothing but tea and dried roses. The recovering shopaholic in me was satisfied. I snapped about three dozen photos throughout the markets (I would soon learn Marrakech is very possibly the least gorgeous destination we visited while in Morocco.) We continued to explore the markets and were approached by aggressive store vendors with each corner turned. I’m a bit of a pro when it comes to dealing with hagglers these days. I’ve done my time at the market place. We weaved in and out of the crowds until finding a rooftop restaurant to enjoy fresh juice and fresh air.
VEGAN IN MOROCCO
I’ll spill the beans right now… The only food you will eat in Morocco as a vegan is…
Vegan Moroccan Tangine (local vegetables - potatoes, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and olives - cooked with spices and herbs in a clay tagine pot) served with bread, olives and tea.
Bread and Jam
Oranges + Fresh Orange Juice
Apples (that are sort’ve shit to be honest,)
Pomegranates (50% are shit 50% are delicious)
Grapes (we tried out hardest to find bunches that weren’t completely covered by swarms of flies)
OUR ROAD TRIP BEGINS
THE DIRTY ECO LODGE IN OUARZAZATE
We picked up our renal car and were on our way in a small, bright purple Fiat 500. The three of us barely fit inside with all of our bags. I drove the eggplant car and only managed to sweat profusely while driving for the first 20 minutes until we were outside of the Marrakesh chaos. Once we left the city, the roads were absolutely beautiful. The energy outside the city was clear and light. We could breathe here.
Spacious, wide open landscape views surrounded us at all times. We listened to Esther and Jerry Hicks on Audible and took turns rotating between iPod playlists and boxes of moroccan dates as we drove. I’ve been listening to a ton of The Electric Sons and Chinchilla on Soundcloud this week.
After a long, beautiful day of travel and conversation in the car, we arrived to our AIRBNB at an “African Ecolodge” in Ourzazate. While Ashley and I organized our luggage and carried bags from the car while Marissa walked to the room with the eco-lodge host and checked out the space. By the time I made it to front door, I walked in and exclaimed “oh my god! This place is sick!” which seemed to very much so please our eco-lodge host. He said goodnight and walked away as I walked into the room’s bathroom to quickly discover a very dirty, damp towel thrown on the floor. “Hey you guys, I think they left a dirty towel in here” I half-shouted through the bathroom door. I turned back to look at the girls as Marissa explained to us “yeah dude i think this room is fully dirty. He couldn’t get the door unlocked for so long and when he did he rushed in to make all of the beds. All of the bedsheets and blankets were thrown in a pile on the floor.” When I asked Marissa “Ew. Why didn’t you say anything?! We have to sleep on these beds tonight” she replied “I was honestly just in shock and so confused.”
And so.. with absolutely zero energy from our extended day of travel and the “I can’t be bothered to go complain to the man who speaks little english” attitude, we sat in a circle and ate avocado on bread rolls and pomegranates for dinner. We climbed into our dirty eco-beds and fell asleep for the night. (I made sure to put on my own pillow case.)
The next morning, I went for an early run to scope out the surrounding area. I made the mistake of wearing a pair of running shorts and immediately felt uncomfortable the moment I reached the center of town by foot. At 6:30 in the morning, the streets were buzzing with local families shopping for fresh produce and men on scooters on their way to work. I would run past a group of woman and wave, to which they would immediately ignore my gesture and instead stare at my legs. It was heavy. I headed home to change and meditate. Needed to relieve myself from the intense energy and masculinity of the moroccan streets.
Before leaving Dirty Eco Lodge we snapped these glamorous shots in the beds . If only we knew what these sheets have seen in the last 48 hours…. or six weeks. Literally, who knows the last time this room was used.
TO THE DESERT
My favorite moments from Morocco begin now. Landscapes unlike anythign I had ever seen before. Villages and buildings made out of sand, clay and compacted earth mixed with hay. Rickety old wooden stands selling raw minerals and crystals around winding turns of hidden mountain highways. Red earth. So much of it. Empty streets lined with date trees and rolling acres of blank terrain. The raw beauty of it all cannot be put into words, but rather experienced in person. The girls and I were quiet in the car. Usually only speaking up to point out an exceptionally gorgeous mosque or mountain ridge that may be missed from the other side of the car. Eyes opened wide, we drove for hours on end. Trying to capture and depict this type of experience is difficult, but photos are all I have to share at this time.
Being in wide open space, entirely free, without cell reception, surrounded by close friends, engaging in meaningful connection/conversation and following our own course (with a little help from GoogleMaps) I felt my whole body fill to the brim with an overwhelming sense of freedom. This is why I travel. This is why I am here. This is so right for me. This will always be so so right for me.
We pulled over for a few pee-on-the-side-of-the-road breaks and ate more dates and grapes than anyone should ever eat in one sitting, ever. That evening, just as the sun began to set in the infinite sky, we saw the most incredible sight in the near distance. Small, blurry, heat-wrapped mountains of sand dunes. We had reached the desert. Everything was golden.
I drove about 120 kilometers an hour straight towards the site of sand and got us there in the next 15 minutes. We had just enough time to park the eggplant at the end of the road and experience the desert for the first time before the sun set.
It was unlike anything I had experienced before. I grew up on a small island off the coast of New York, and spent summers running up (and then rolling down) sand dunes and cliffs with my friends and cousins. But this was nothing at all like the east coast sand dunes. This was like stepping into a vast sea of caramel sand spread out in perfectly smoothed, geometric patterns, swirls and designs. This was magic. Nature’s masterpiece.
I met my first ever camel that evening. I was a bit starstruck, to be honest. They’re much bigger than I had imagined. I live for those moments when nature just completely blows my mind. Elephants, camels, whales; When I see these animals in their natural habitat, I immediately remind myself “oh yeah, you exist on this planet as well. How wild.” I slowly approached the massive camel “play it cool. Act chill” and was blessed with the gift of a solid 2 minute nose rub before he was no longer interested in me touching him.
Unfortunately, when camels are not being ridden by tourists throughout the sahara, they are tied up to short ropes on metal picks in the ground that keep then confined to a 3’ radius of sand. We watched one berber (camel walker) come over to remove a guiding rope from his mouth and heard this horrific heart-wrenching wail from the camel crying out while desperately trying to pull away from the hand grabbing the twine from his teeth. It was upsetting and unsettling to see. Far worse experience for the camel, I imagine.
From that moment. Everything else felt like a dream. A hot, sandy, dusty and bright desert dream. We had plans of sleeping out in a desert camp the first night we arrived, but ended up getting distracted with the sun and the sand and not making it to base in time to make it into the desert before dark. So we grabbed tagine for dinner in town and then slept at a nearby hotel tucked just outside of the town. I am 99% sure we were in fact the only guests staying at the hotel. This time, the bedsheets were clean. We woke up the next morning and sipped on mint tea, fresh OJ and warm bread before hopping in the car to rent boards and hit the dunes. We were so excited for this.
SNOWBOARDING ON MARS
The girls and I somehow managed to squeeze three snowboards (with bindings) into the small eggplant car and then crammed in our own bodies in the remaining cracks and crevices.
We headed out in the heat and walked up and down sand hills and dunes for twenty minutes before finding a hill to hit. The girls and I were all wearing our running sneakers, which we clumsily strapped into our bindings before hopping through hot, thick sand to make a move on these baby hills. We did a test run and were hooked already. We needed to find a bigger hill. And so we continued on. Walking up, down and around massive sand mountains in the desert until we could barely see the clay buildings that made up the small town in the distance.
Sand-boarding was one of the most incredible and exuahsting things I have ever done. I gew up snowboarding in Vermont, but haven’t been back to the mountain in years and forget all about the joy of walking uphill with your board and bindings. As draining as it was, I couldn’t help but think “nahhh this is chill though, because at least my feet, fingers and face aren’t frostbitten and so numb they’re burning.”
We spent hours playing in the sand, boarding down hills only to walk back up them another ten times after and then finally collapsed with shirts off to cool down from the desert heat (and also *hopefully* get a little sun tan too.)
By the time our calves and bums were too sore to walk any further, we embarked on the journey out of the desert and back to the car. I’m saddened to write this (and even more saddened to have experienced it in person) but we at one point found ourselves in a sand-pit covered in quad and jeep tire tracks near the boarder of the desert that was littered with piles of discarded plastic water bottles and empty beer cans. Thrown on the ground. In the Sahara desert. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Seeing empty plastic water bottles in the Sahara desert is comparably as devastating as seeing empty plastic bottles floating around coral reefs 90 feet under water. Sometimes, when I think I have a grasp on how severe the plastic epidemic really is, I experience moments like this and think “fuck. fuck. it’s so so much worse than I can even imagine.”
We collected a large rice bag full of sandy plastic bottles and empty cans and headed back into town.
DAYS IN THE DESERT
The next few days began to blur into one slow, warm, moroccan memory. Wake up, mint tea, orange juice, bread and jam, morning mediation, check a few messages, reply to emails and then grab the boards and get in the car. We hit up as many desert accesses as we possibly could and would usually last a few hours in the heat before we agreed it was time to cool off and chill out at the hotel. We’d lay low for a bit and wait for the day time heat to simmer down before hitting the sand one last time for sunset.
On our last evening in the desert, we had plans to finally make our way out to the desert camp, where you would sleep, cook, dance and stargaze with a group of fellow travelers and a few local tour guides and berbers (camel walkers.) If you know me (or know Marissa or Ashley) there was no way in hell we were about to hop aboard a sweet camel with our massive bags and expect them to walk us out into the desert. “We don’t feel comfortable riding the camels,” we explained to the camp manager who spoke with us at the hotel. “We don’t support using the animals in that way. Can we walk or drive to the camp?” The answer was yes, we could drive. But we’d have to do so in a jeep and it would cost us 20 euro per person, per way. 120 euro round trip for a 20 minute jeep ride sounded a bit ridiculous to us. And with that price in addition to the cost of the overnight stay in the tent - we decided we would skip out on the desert camp this time around. Our hotel room felt pretty similar to a desert lodge anyways, we agreed. When our camp trip was canceled we headed back to the dunes and enjoyed a stellar stargazing session in the middle of the sands.
Laying on warm Sahara sand, counting shooting stars, eating pomegranates and being with the girls was one of the most spectacular moments of my travels so far. Mmmm. I wanted to bottle the moment up and take it with me forever.
On our last morning in the desert, I woke up to attempt to complete my online mediation homework (wifi in the Sahara is quite crappy, which shouldn’t be surprising to most) before we squeezed in a final board session. We were getting quite good …quite decent… by this point.
As sad as we were to say goodbye to the desert, we felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation for this incredible place. One of my all time favorite feelings while traveling is to leave a place wanting more. “ I cannot wait to come back soon.” I repeated again and again in my head as we drove further away from the golden mounds.
Leaving the desert is a whole lot easier when the road trip back to the city is exceptionally gorgeous. We drove through dozens of small, local villages made up of houses, mosques and schools built out of compacted clay, sand and hay. We binge listened to Serial, which is one of my favorite murder misery podcasts and enjoyed our last few hours with Ashely before dropping her off at the airport to fly back to the US just in time for her love’s birthday celebration.
By now, Marissa and I are the queens of “book an accommodation on someone’s cell phone 5 minutes before arriving and trust it’ll be epic.” We had two nights left in Morocco and wanted to make the most of the rental car. We chose a mountain lodge just 90 minutes away from the airport and were on our way - just the two of us, this time.
We spent the evening driving into the Atlas Mountain range, which absolutely blew our mind. To be in the Sahara desert one day, and surrounded by snow covered mountain caps the next was a wildly unique experience. The Atlas Mountains are known for their incredible hiking trails and scenic views - and they absolutely did not disappoint.
It felt so good to unwind here for the next two days. The village was small and quiet. A few street vendors selling bread or dates on one corner, a hiking gear supply shop on the other. There were children, woman and donkeys roaming the streets as we arrived. We made our way up the mountain in the eggplant car and were layering on the sweaters, sweatpants and socks within the first 10 minutes of arriving at our hotel. It was chilly here. Crisp. Cool. Refreshing. The view was jaw-droopingly gorgeous and kept us perfectly preoccupied and content as we sat indoors/on the porch/on the roof top answering emails and working on our websites for the next two days. During morning breakfast, Marissa and I met a few fellow travelers from England and enjoyed sharing travel stories and recommendations with one another. I absolutely adore meeting other females (and men) who are living their lives. Acting intuivelty and traveling with little plan, other than the intention to see parts of the world they haven’t before. Morocco brings together unique people who cultivate beautiful experiences.
الله يمسك علي خير
And just like that, our time in Morocco had come to an end for now. Marissa and I spent one final evening walking the streets of the local town, petting goats in roadside pastures and shopping for silver rings in the village’s only traditional souvenir shop. The next morning we were locked and loaded in the eggplant car, en route to our flight to Vienna and then Athens for a one day layover before our next adventure begins…