Sunday, August 12, 2012


The rain in Spain stays mainly in Castilla y Leon. After one of the most brutal winters Europe has seen in years, I was beginning to think the sun only existed in my fond American memories.  By February, our entire group of extranjeros was ready to flee to warmer temperatures and a cheap flight from Madrid to Marrakech was just the ticket. Pun intended. 

I got off the plane in Morocco to 75 degrees, palm trees and not a cloud in the sky.  And then I was like !!!!!!OOooOMmMGgggGG I'M IN AFRICAAAA!!!!! Then security thought I was on drugs and I got deported.

Heh, just kidding.

We spent 7 days here and there's no way I can write about everything, so I've broken it down into "things you should do" and added pictures. You know that's what you really want to see anyway.

1) Accept that even the most legitimate of exchanges will probably seem SKETCHY.

A perfect example of a legitimate interaction in which my gut said THIS IS WEIRD is as follows.  We asked the manager of our hostel, "Yaya, where is a recommended place to find authentic Moroccan food for dinner?" Normal question, right? He told us of a great place with good food and a belly dancing show. However, he said, it was a bit hard to find so he would take us there. THEN he said, due to Moroccan law, only people with a license could lead tourists around the city. (A good law in my opinion.)  Since he didn't have a license, he could get arrested if the police questioned him. So, he was on his bike and we had to follow 50 paces behind so it didn't appear that he was our leader.  I felt like I was part of a drug exchange when really all I wanted was some couscous and belly dancing. Dinner turned out to be wonderful and the belly dancing show was fun. All legitimate in the end, but totally sketchy.

Best travel partners in the whole world!

The opening act.

Belly dancing extraordinaire!

Hahaha John got a little extra attention!

2) Haggling is the name of the game.

The souks of Marrakech are some of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. You could get lost for hours in there wandering around taking in the sights, sounds and smells (some more pleasant than others). Marrakech is so close to Spain but it might as well be a world away. The souks are filled with spices, lamps, scarves, leather goods and every dinky souvenir you could imagine. Imagine Aladdin with less Gilbert Godfried and more thieving monkeys.  Being a little white girl from North Carolina, I was blown away by the exoticness of it all. I wanted to buy everything I saw, but I was quite uncomfortable with haggling...for the first hour. After a while, it becomes like a game of limbo. How low can you go? You feel like you are king of the haggling world and, if a store owner doesn't give you the price you want, you just say fine and walk away. Odds are, the stall a couple feet down will have the exact same thing. Ahh, the power! My rule of thumb was to offer them half the price of the initial offer and then go from there. Some people might even say to start off with a third.

Souk Guy: Fish and chips! Best price for beautiful English girl.
Me: I'm not English, I'm American. (AHHHHH STORY OF MY LIFE)
Souk Guy: AMERICAAA!! I give you DEMOCRATIC price, OBAMA price! 200 dirham.
Me: No, no. Too much! 100 dirham.
Souk Guy: I cannot GIVE it away. It is best quality leather, see?! (Proceeds to torch purse with a lighter to prove it is real leather and not plastic).

And the haggling commences from there.  A fun little dance to see who will give in first. Just remember that you, as the customer, have the power!! Don't give in, friends!
Sipping mint tea on a rooftop above Plaza Jemaa el-Fnaa

Posing with the traditional water carrier.


All of the spices are shaped in pyramids like this.

Fresh squeezed orange juice for 40 cents!

Horse drawn carriage ride through town.

Made friends with this orange juice squeezer!

Paying to pose with snakes. No thank you!

Typical souk scene.

Plaza Jemaa el-Fnaa
Not lying about the thieving monkeys.  One took the sunglasses off of my face!

3) Get out of the city

Marrakech is an amazing place but, like every city, it can be exhausting. The haggling and the constant thought process of, "Am I being swindled? What can I do to prevent the swindling?" takes a toll on even the most fearless tourists.  The city people who hustle for a living give Moroccans a bad reputation because, if you get out of the city, you can experience some of the most generous, humble, kind spirited people in the world. I have traveled a lot of places this year and no people have warmed my heart like the Berber people I encountered on my way to and in the Sahara. (Shoutout to Fatima and Hassan my Berber BFFs. BBFFs, if you will.) In addition to the wonderful people, Morocco has some amazing natural beauty that I had no idea existed. The incredible Atlas mountains, massive gorges that make you feel microscopic, huge waterfalls, beautiful coastlines, lush valleys with groves of palm trees and DUHH the Sahara!  I recommend going to see the Todra Gorge and I've heard that Essouira is a lovely coastal town.

Overlooking tiny Berber villages nestled in the valley.

Making our way into the High Atlas mountains.

The kasbah at Ait Benhaddou.  Films like Gladiator and The Mummy were filmed here.
Rocking the kasbah. (Sorry, I had to do it.)

Buying scarves in the Todra Gorge.

Todra Gorge.

Standing in the gorge after getting my turban did.

Hassan, our Berber guide.  Was awesome until he started talking about how Osama bin Laden was framed. Then it got a little awkward...

This man was making burned, etched art using the sun and a magnifying glass. Incredible!

A desert oasis!

Another guide named Hassan explaining the important alfalfa crop.
Buying a Berber carpet..from a Berber.  Fatima, sweetest lady on the planet.


4) Go to the desert and ride a camel

Camels are stinky, fickle creatures but you have to give them props for hauling jumbo sized tourists through the desert.  I'd probably be stinky and fickle if I were them, too.  But there is no better way to get to the middle of the desert than on a camel. Your butt will be sore but the end result is worth it.  Watching the shadows grow longer against the dunes as the sun sinks deeper into the sky will make you feel as if you're experiencing a sunset for the first time.  Living in Boone, I have seen some beautiful night skies.  The parkway during a meteor shower is incredible but a night sky with absolutely ZERO light pollution is something which can only be experienced, well, in the middle of a desert.  It is best experienced on top of a mountain sized sand dune. That is, if you can make it UP the sand dune. Halfway up the dune, Hassan (my BBFF) was literally hauling my fat butt up there.  Bless him.  Climbing mountains is hard enough. Climbing a mountain of sand is beyond difficult. The view at the top is worth it though.  Sitting around a fire listening to a traditional Berber drum circle isn't too shabby either.  It is especially fun and rowdy when the guides have obviously partaken in some "Moroccan tobacco" while the tourists were eating dinner.  Sleeping in a tent in the desert after the sun has set is CHILLYYY! Luckily, thanks to my dear boyfriend, I have ample experience with being frigid and miserable in tents. And, being cold is a small price to pay for waking up to the sun rising over the Sahara.  Bottom line, you have to go.

But whatever you do, don't disturb his slumber! (Googled "Aladdin evil lion sand dune" and got the internet!)

I was leading the camel train!

On our camels!

Heading to the campsite.

Shadows against the dunes.

Sun starting to set.

Not too bad for dinner in the desert!!

Drum circle with our Berber friends.  They didn't speak English but we were able to communicate in Spanish.  LANGUAGE!

Sunrise over the desert the next morning.

Final picture with me and my "Stinkypoo"...he had some gastrointestinal problems.

Sweet Hassan who hauled me up the dune.

5) Go to a local hammam.

There are no pictures from this part of my trip (which makes sense once you know what a hammam is) but I don't need pictures to remember this experience for the rest of my life! So, what exactly is a hammam, you may be wondering? Well, it is basically a big steam room where the local women come about once a week to bathe and exfoliate themselves. There are tons of touristy hammams in Marrakech where you can go get a private spa experience for European prices. We decided that we wanted the local experience instead because they are a fraction of the price.  My friend Alex and I went to a store that sold oils and soaps and bought the traditional black soap and exfoliating gloves that they use for the process.  I think that in the touristy places they provide this for you, but not in our case.  So, we showed up to the hammam (an unmarked door in an alleyway) with our towels, supplies and anxious excitement.  Here are the steps of the whole process and our unique experience:

          Step 1: De-robing and letting the steam open your pores.    
 We entered the hammam and in the first room there were several ooold ladies who directed us to take our clothes off and give them our stuff. We got down to our britches and they looked at us like, "That's not all!" Once we realized that they expected us to get 100% nudie patootie, our eyes got real wide and Alex and I looked at each other freaking out.  The ladies saw our fear and started dying laughing. It is a strange experience being completely naked while a room full of old Arabic ladies in full robes and head scarves are cackling at your modesty.  Next, beet red and covering what we could, we went into the steam room. We sat there for about 15 minutes not knowing what to do and watching as all of the Moroccan ladies ogled us and giggled amongst themselves.  Mind you, this was February, so our awkwardness combined with our albino-ness made us quite the spectacle, I'm sure!

Step 2: Dousing with water and scrub down.
You know in cartoons when there is a really dirty they are trying to clean so they just throw buckets of water on them to start? Yeah, that's what they did to us. Big, 5 gallon buckets of hot water were sloshed all over us as we laughed nervously and sputtered. 
Next, you apply the soap.  Then, the "masseuse" takes over. In my case, the masseuse was about an 85 year old lady, completely naked save some sumo-style black undies. Man, recounting this tale I am just sitting here laughing to myself. She put on the gloves and went to work.  Although their clothing covers them completely, Moroccan women take impeccable care of their skin.  They hardcore exfoliate every week and their skin is flawless. Mine, not so much.  The masseuse scrubbed the ever living crap out of my entire body with gloves that are pretty much like sandpaper. She was really disturbed at how much dead skin I had and I'm pretty sure she was telling all the other ladies about it. Haha it was a total Elaine with the Korean manicurists from Seinfeld moment. During this exfoliation, you are just lying on the ground of the hammam, flopping around like the fish out of water that we were. Alex and I were beside each other and I heard her laugh and exclaim that this was going on the top ten list of least sanitary moments of her life.  That, and the list of most hilarious moments of my life.

  Step 3:  Post exfoliation massage and shampooing. 
After the exfoliation, the lady gave me a massage. I've only ever had 2 professional massages in my life, and this one definitely wins the "Most Memorable" award. Mainly just for the fact that I don't think I'll ever be able to erase the image of that naked old lady so close to me from my mind.  After the massage, they shampooed and conditioned our hair and sloshed more buckets of water on us and shuffled us out the door back to the dressing room. Alex and I quickly dried off and put our clothes back on.  Few words were spoken between us as we contemplated what we had just experienced.  

  I was torn between the thoughts, "OMG I am taking this experience to the grave with me" and "OMG I can't wait to tell everyone about this hilarious thing I just did." As you can see, the second train of thought prevailed. As awkward and disturbing as that experience was, by gosh, my skin was smoother than a baby's behind. Seriously, your skin will never be as soft as it is after a naked Moroccan grandma takes sandpaper gloves to you. Wow, that is a sentence I never thought I'd say. As I re-read this section, I realize that everything I've said here will make you never want to go to a hammam in your life.  Well, too bad, you should do it anyway. Because everyone loves a mortifying experience that you can turn into a good story, am I right?

Other sights and attractions you should see in the city:

The Majorelle Garden. Yves St. Laurent is buried here and I'm not really a garden gal, but this was one of the most incredible places I've ever been. Here are some pictures.

Yves St. Laurent memorial.

The Saadian tombs are the burial place of the old Moroccan kings. I think it is the equivalent of 1 euro to get in and there is some beautiful architecture worth seeing.

Nothing says photo op like dead kings!

So, in conclusion, there is nothing more I can say. You've seen the pictures and heard my stories. All that's left is for you to go and see it for yourself. Get out of your comfort zone in Marrakech and you won't regret it. Unless you do, and then don't blame me! Thanks for reading!