Entry #010: Monday, April 29, 2013 (Florence, Italy)

Well, just about three weeks since I shipped out of the United States, and now I am done with Morocco. And it's not just because I'm literally no longer in the country; at this point, I think I've hit all the big points Morocco has to offer. Interestingly enough, I wouldn't say "I'm over it." I would say I'm past that point (so...back on it?). I realized this the other night, when...well, I'll get to that. Brew a fresh pot of coffee; it's gonna be a long one.

So, where did we leave off? Oh, yeah, I was homeless and had just spent a night not sleeping and instead being in a nightclub. Well, let's just pick up from there, shall we? I was picked up in front of the train station by my driver and guide, Abraham (or Baha for short). He walked me over to a 4x4, put my luggage in the back, and then said to everyone in the car, "Your friend Andrew is in, so we're ready to go."

Nobody really said anything, so I re-introduced myself once I sat inside. Joining me in the back seat were an Italian couple, Mateo and Francesca (both of whom were PHD students taking a break from the economic slump Italy is currently in). Sitting in the passenger seat up front was an American named Ryan, who...waitwaitwait? American? It really only hit me at that point that, despite some dude early on in the trip saying "there are so many Americans here" this was literally the first one I had seen my entire time. It was enough to get me a little giddy, I'm almost ashamed to say (almost). He even had a slight twang in his voice, being from Austin. I knew we'd get along just fine. I also knew that if we needed to be split off into pairs, we'd be teamed together. Not just because the other pair was actually a couple (though that does contribute to it). But we even got a nickname, "The Cowboys", due to the fact that we both had leather hats (though I object a bit to this, as mine is an outback hat). He fit the name more though, having boots and liking the Dallas Cowboys and, y'know, Texas.

Anyhoo, we all set out on the trip. Now here's the thing about this whole excursion. It is called "Camel Trekking Morocco". It is the first item that pops up when you type in "camel trek" into Google. Literally, that is how I heard about it to begin with, and it may have been one of the reasons I decided to visit Morocco in the first place. Because camels. But the thing is, the actual camel trekking is a minor part of the whole thing. You spend three hours, max, sitting on a camel (and thank God for that!). A more accurate, albeit less catchy name for this program would be "Southern Moroccan Sightseeing Adventure, With Bonus Camel Ride". And really, the one-point-five-day drive to the desert had as much appeal as the time in the desert.

Funnily enough, about the first half of the drive on Wednesday was along the same path that I took on the buses to and from Zagora, right through the Atlas mountains. In some ways, I could see this as a bit of a "I got gyp'd" moment, but it actually had the opposite effect on me; having the opportunity to stop multiple times on the trip, to be given some background on what you're looking at, to take pictures without judgement, to stretch legs, grab a snack or drink, use the restroom, and then get back in with a few people in a comfortable, plush seat with your luggage safely in the trunk...it made the experience much sweeter, because I knew what the alternative was. And it made the money spent on this seem completely worthwhile (especially when you do the math to compare it to booking all the elements yourself).

Also, when else are you going to listen to as much eclectic music. Well, it started in a fairly eclectic way, at least. There was some Ziggy Marley, some 50-Cent, some French Celine Dion songs (I didn't know she did this, but apparently it's a thing), even a random James Blunt song thrown in for good measure. Some of the song were not my cup of tea, but I was more or less enjoying the complete crapshoot that each new track represented. Then, somewhere along the way, Baha turned on some traditional Berber folk music. And after a fifteen-minute song that repeated the same three basic sequences over and over, we waited to hear what was next...and got another Berber song. And another one after that. Basically, after lunch on our first day, we were listening to nonstop Berber folk music. And while I don't dislike it (and probably prefer it to Arabic music), it got a bit draining. I wasn't the only one who noticed it, either; the other three trekkers all commented on it. But we let it slide because we're going to be culturally open, dammit!

I won't go into the details of the entire drive. First of all, I realize it's not very exciting to read "I was sitting on my ass for an hour, then we stopped, then I was sitting again." Second, I was dozing off during about a third of the drive, both because I like sleeping when I'm in the back seat of a car (there's nothing better for me to do back there) and because I was exhausted from my all-nighter. Third, a number of the places kind of blend together, and I don't have terribly much to say except for "It was beautiful there, you should see the pictures!" (And I'm working to get the put pictures and other media in a dedicated post.) But here are a few odds and ends from my thoughts on the trip.

First of all, we passed through a number of towns and districts, and I began to feel like I was in a fantasy or sci-fi story. There's this trope that's especially common in those genres known as the "Planet of Hats" effect, which is when an entire planet is based around one thing, either a mentality (being a proud warrior species) or an item (like a gold town where gold is used for everything, even when impractical). This latter type seemed to actually exist in Morocco, and quite evidently. At one point, Baha said we were entering a place called "The Valley of Roses", which is a region where all the country's roses are grown. Almost immediately, we say children selling rose leis on the side of the road. Further in, I could not see a single store that was not advertising rose products. L'eau de Rose (rose water) seemed especially prominent. Baha said that they have a festival every year (the Rose Festival, wouldn't you know), where they covered the whole town in a layer of roses, and women danced in rose dresses, and I assume they discuss how much they like roses. (Oddly enough, I saw no trace of the rose fields.) Later, we came to an area which was fairly fossil rich. There they had a fossil museum, with some fake dinosaur skeletons out front, and every store was selling fossils and minerals. Geodes and trilobites as far as the eye could see. There was also the argan-growing region, where argan products (particularly argan oil) were even more prevalent than normal. In some ways, it seemed very medieval to have these towns who appeared so specialized in their existence.

Speaking of medieval, one of the spots we saw was the ancient mud city of Aït Benhaddou, which is quite famous for appearing in a number of movies, everything from Jesus of Nazareth to The Mummy to my personal favorite, Gladiator. (If you're wondering, it's from the part where Maximus first starts fighting as a slave.) The drive there was exceptionally off-road (literally, there was a rotted wood sign on the side of the road, and Baha just turned off of the pavement); we crossed over boulders and went through dried up riverbeds. When we finally got to the place, I was...a bit underwhelmed, to be honest. The place was cool enough to look at, I guess, but it was so far away, and I had to swat away peddlers like so many flies. When we asked if we could go inside, Baha just scoffed and said the interior was just full of even more peddlers nowadays. So we just drove on. We did also see Atlas Studios, which is a movie studio where they film antiquity-based movies (and have huge props, like Egyptian statues and such). But again, we were so far away that the effect was a bit muted.

Eventually, after seeing a bunch of places, we reach the Gorge du Dades (Dades Gorge, in case you're like me and don't like French). It was pretty impressive, as far as gorges go. We then went to our hotel for the night, which lay in the shadow of the gorge. We were all secretly hoping we'd get the hotel at the top of the gorge, but Baha dismissed that notion. "There's too many tourists there. One day, when it rains too hard, it will wash down the side of the cliff." (Baha really dislikes touristy stuff, we came to realize.) The hotel we had seemed nice enough, though, and the rooms had a nice view of the small nearby river (which provided some nice white noise for sleeping). Baha asked if Ryan and I wanted to share a room. We did the typical American "I'm okay if you're okay" song and dance until I realized there we wold not be charged extra for getting singles. We agreed that, let's be honest, we want rooms to ourselves. We'd be seeing each other soon enough at dinner anyway. A big deal about how our tour was paying for the meal, so when they asked what drinks we wanted, I was tempted to ask for one of each. I eventually just stuck to a tea and water, and all for the better, as when a slip of paper was set upon the table afterwards, we realized that our free meal didn't include drinks. Whoops!

We had to go in shifts to get our money (though I did like the concept of us ditching the bill, only to hide in our rooms upstairs), and then went back to our rooms. I tried to upload my blog post for that evening (as evidenced by Entry #009's date), but found out there was no Wi-Fi in the room. So I go down to the lobby, where I found the rest of my crew, busily checking their emails. Well, maybe not busily, because even next to the router, the connection was garbage. I couldn't upload a thing. I couldn't even respond to an email without using basic text. We eventually walked back upstairs, slightly defeated. After I showered, though, I thought to go back down, because who know, maybe all of us being there clogged it up. So I begin to walk downstairs, and I begin to realize it's dark. Like, pitch black. I am forced to use my laptop screen to illuminate my way down the stairs. When I reach the lobby, it's still completely dark, except for a candle in one corner. Surrounding that candle were a bunch of people I didn't recognize, speaking Arabic in hushed tones. I sat down a fair distance away from them and continued my attempts to get a decent signal, but with no success. Eventually, my anxiety got the better of me - I could be in a secret society meeting, for all I knew. I went back upstairs and promptly fell asleep.

The night didn't last nearly long enough to correct for the previous one, but we had places to go. After a fairly unimpressive breakfast (not because of the fact that it was breads and spreads - that's expected - but rather because it was using some crap tea bag. Unacceptable), I futilely tried one last time to upload my last entry (that's how much I care about you people!), and then hopped in the car to start the second leg of the trip.

The first stop was another gorge (the Todra Gorge), which had the opposite view of the Dades Gorge, as this time we were looking from the bottom up. Seeing the sheer cliffs rocketing into the sky, I knew I had to take some sharp-angled pictures. You know, to be artistic and junk. But to really get that feeling of height, I had to cross the river. I spent some time looking for some solid looking stones to hop upon, but when a peddler came up to me and refused to leave, I abandoned all reason and waded through the water to the other side. Feeling the squashiness in my shoes made me immediately regret my decision. When I got back to the other side, I wrung out my socks and was thankful this wasn't a long hiking trek.

As we continued driving, we again stopped at a number of scenic locations to take pictures. I made sure to use each of these opportunities to bask my wet shoes in the warm Moroccan sun before they touched the Saharan sand. One thing that was definitely noticeable, though, was the changing terrain in each of the new stops. Gone were the lush greens of the Atlas Mountains. Soon enough, the desolation of the landscape became the main feature. Then, after driving for about five, maybe six, hours, we saw our first glimpse of the Sahara dunes popping up over the horizon. We had reached the edge.

We got into the nearby town of Merzouga (the one that the Zagora people don't like), where we all bought a fresh water bottle for the trek, and then we had an unexpected treat. It turned out that this was Baha's town, and he brought us into his home, where his wife had prepared a "pizza" for us. I use the quotation marks because that's what they called it. I would call it...well, I suppose you could liken it to a pizza mixed with a crepe mixed with a calzone? It was a bunch of ingredients (veggies, the kind you'd find in tajine) baked between two layers of flatbread. However you want to define it, it was very good, and it was nice seeing a Moroccan dish that wasn't tajine or couscous. While eating, we were charmed by Baha's four-year-old daughter, who was busy trying on his glasses and generally being cute. I wanted to show her Factoria, the stuffed monkey I'm traveling with, but I was afraid she'd think it was a gift and be heartbroken when I took it back. We also talked about how goddamn expensive electronics are in Morocco. For example, Baha said that his four-year-old TV cost 6,000 dirham (600 Euro). That doesn't sound too bad, until you know that it's a 12-inch CRT.

After lunch, Baha took us to his special event room, which was a long, very nicely decorated room, where he told us we'd be taking a nap. No objections from me. I set my still-damp socks and shoes out in the sun and then clonked out for about an hour. After that, we got back in the car and rode to the edge of the desert. And there we saw our camels.

We grabbed our supplies for the night, and went to the camel handlers. With absolutely no sense of ceremony, or even introduction, one of them pointed at a camel and said, "Go on top." I figured I may as well be first, so I swung my leg over the camel's...I think "perch" is more appropriate than "saddle". It then stood up, first with it's hind legs, swinging me forward and downward, and then its front legs, lifting me up. I then watched the other three trekkers get up on their camels, and without another word from the handlers, we were on my way.

So, one of my goals on this was to get a good comparison between riding a horse and riding a camel. I love horses, as my coworkers could attest to from the many pictures I cut from calenders and hung in my cubicle. And to compare the two...okay, there's no comparison. Horse wins, full stop. Aside from the general sense of majesty you get from horses, there is also the fact that when you ride one, you are close to it. You can lean down and touch its neck. Even at its worst, there is a logic, a fluidity, a grace, to its movements. With a camel, you are so far removed from it (the creature, though you are also far removed from its neck) that it seems difficult to build a strong bond. And its movements have the fluidity of a baguette.

Also, the camel is not a glamorous animal. In fact, I hesitate using those two words in the same sentence. It's strictly utilitarian, with no sense of desire towards attractiveness. The camel I was riding, having some sort of gastrointestinal issues, seemed the least glamorous of all. I dubbed him Yamel the Camel (I follow the Dr. Seuss turtle-based naming school), and by the time we reached the camp, I was thinking we'd wake up the next morning and find it dead.

As for the ride itself, it was enjoyable although I thank God we weren't riding for three days (much less the 52 days to get from Zagora to Timbuktu). Riding a camel destroys your backside, and probably made me sterile to boot. But still, it was a cool experience being part of a caravan, seeing your shadows in the sands, feeling the heat of the sun. It felt so completely different from anything I had done before, which is what I wanted in all this. And the best part was just looking out and seeing the endless oceans of sand.

Now, if there were a word I would use to describe what I saw of the Sahara, it would be sensual. Odd choice, I know, but hear me out. What really struck me about it were the curves. There were curves, everywhere, from the tops of the huge dunes, to the tiny ridges made by beetles and sand fish. So soft and smooth, and when the sun hit them, it cast shadows equally soft and smooth, and the light blues of the shadows lightly touched the strong oranges of the sands. And when the wind blew, you could see small strips of sand moving over the dunes, like caressing fingers. That's what I got out of it, anyway.

We eventually reached our campsite, a patchwork set of tents comprised of carpets. Our camels were forced to kneel upon a pile of their own excrement (is there more degrading act than this?), and we were taken to our tents. After we were paired off (the cowboys shared a tent, and I was dreading any Brokeback references), we were told to climb up the sand dunes. This is easier said than done. In fact, it's amazing how difficult and tiring it is to reach the top of a dune. Try as I might, by the last few steps, you're on your hands, either because you needed the extra support (as the others did) or you just fell (as I did). But man, getting to the top was worth it. The views are amazing and intimidating. Looking out and seeing nothing but sand as far as the eye can see - it makes you wonder what kind of person could cross it for the first time.

While sitting on top of the sand dunes, Ryan and I got to talking. (We decided to save the quiet reflection until later, because on the way over, we had another set of folks join us, a French-Canadian couple and their  children. Their very talkative children.) Among other things, we were reflecting upon the surreality of our situation. "At my office," I said, "right about now, they'll be discussing if they'd rather have Subway or Chipotle for lunch, and I'm sitting on a dune in the Sahara." (That said, we both agreed it would be nice to find a Chipotle around here.)

Once the sun set (which, due to clouds on the horizon, was not nearly as glorious as it should have been), we went down for dinner. I took off my shoes, and was amazed how much sand got in. I'm pretty sure there was more sand than foot in there. Our dinner was - wait for it - tajine and bread, along with some soup. After eating, we went outside, where our hosts played some Berber music for us on their drums, and then handed them over for a jam session. This started off poorly, but I think we got the hang of it before too long. The hosts then asked us for jokes. I told them I'm really more of an anecdote kind of guy, and so they just asked some riddles, and that all ended fairly awkwardly. Hey, at least the music was fun!

I went back up the sand dune afterward. It was a full moon, which was a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we missed the opportunity to be in the desert under a sea of stars. The only ones we saw were the ones I'd see normally in California. On the other hand, it was so bright that I had a discernible shadow at night. I could still see the desert wonderfully and in a literal new light. I used this time to sit and reflect. Ryan joined me a bit, and we talked for some time, but we also spent some time in silence, just enjoying the place we were in.

I wanted to take some pictures of the night environment, so I had to go back to the camp to get my camera. But then I realized that I had nothing in my pockets, nothing to worry about getting broken or dirty. So I decided to do something that I figured I'd never again have a chance to do - I rolled down the dune. Or part of it, at least. According to Ryan, I was going fine for a while, and then suddenly fishtailed and started just rolling across the dune instead of down it. When I stopped and sat up, I had to give myself some time to let the world stop spinning.

After taking my pictures, we went down into our tent to go to bed, as we had to wake up at 5am for the sunrise. The wind began blowing fiercely, and while it sounded like our tent could collapse any second, I had to remind myself that it's probably been through hundreds of these, and that my being in there won't magically make it fail. And thankfully, I was right, so I survived the night.

When 5am came (and too soon it was), the wind was still blowing something fierce. Blankets flapping and flopping around all over the place. The Berber hosts brought us in for breakfast, which was exactly what we figured it would be. It also came with some prepackaged muffins, and wedges of Laughing Cow cheese. I snagged a couple of each to put in my backpack for later, just in case. The hosts then told us to hurry or we'd miss the sunrise. In the base of the camp, the wind was blowing, but at the top of the dunes, it was blowing. The mix of cold temperatures and sand everywhere convinced most of the group to stay in the camp, but Ryan and I persevered. Our diligence was rewarded...somewhat. Like the sunset before it, the sunrise was behind a foggy layer, so while it definitely looked pretty, it was somewhat impotent. That said, a flawed sapphire is still a sapphire, and we drank in the sunrise like a glass of avocado juice (more on that later).

Pretty much immediately after that, the hosts told us that we had to leave before it got too hot. We gathered up our belongings and went to the camels. Some of the group had some difficulty recognizing their camel, but I found Yamel the Camel through a mix of his curly hair and the constant vomiting-like sounds he produced. I put on my gear. I didn't mention it earlier, but I had two items that proved their worth perfectly. The first was a shemagh (which is a Middle Eastern head dressing). Normally when wearing it, I've been doing so just around the neck, but for these trips I did a full wrap around the head to keep out the sun. The second item were my trademark goggles. Some may scoff at them (my trekking companions never even commented on them, interestingly enough), but when that wind is whipping sand into your face, they make the whole experience a lot more tolerable. So both skin and vision were preserved.

(As a quick tangent, I actually only wore sunblock once in my entirety in Morocco (at Volubilis). Mostly because of laziness. But sometimes simple awareness works just as well. My arms have good SoCal skin, and the spot with the biggest propensity to burn - my neck - was always strategically covered by my hat.)

The camel ride back was a bit duller of an affair than the ride to the camp. You can blame it on the fact that everything we saw was stuff we saw before, but honestly, I think we were just tired. Still, nothing wakes you up faster than a camel going downhill. It's necessity, really; if you don't break into alertness, you will be thrown off your perch. When we got back to the edge of the desert, I got off and immediately started kneading my own behind, hoping to get some life back into it. Everyone else had their own methods of alleviating the soreness from the experience, but as we stretched and massaged, we all agreed it was worth it.

Baha arrived shortly afterward, and we jumped in the car. Like on the camel ride back, this drive was a bit more of a muted affair due to how tired we were. We did take a different route to Ouarzazete than we did going to the desert, and we did stop every now and again to take some great panoramic shots, but on the whole, there was less photography even in this new area. While it's beautiful and absolutely worth going to, after a while all the photos run together. Oh, here's a picture of...that town...surrounded by palm trees...and there's some mountains in the back. It's not quite the same as when I was saying the cities here are all similar, but it's similar. With a few exceptions, I look over the pictures I took of these small, scenic towns, and I can't remember any of the names Baha mentioned. And if I could, I wouldn't be able to place them to any of what I saw. It's sort of similar with the desert - every view was gorgeous and worth taking a picture of, but I ended up culling about three-quarters of my photos to put online because, when you're not there, it's just another picture of the desert.

In any case, each of us was dozing off for at least some portion of the trip. We made a quick stop in a restaurant in Ouarzazete, where I met a middle-aged man from Virginia who was on a quest to visit 100 countries by 2020. (And I thought my goals were lofty.) But after that, the only stops we made were to stretch our legs.  We did get stopped by the police once, who asked if I was Muslim, due to my travel beard. Overall, we made pretty good time, and we arrived back in Marrakech at about 6pm. I said my goodbyes to all the other trekkers, went into the station, and prepped for the next couple days.

Then it started getting a little wacky.

I was scheduled to meet a new CouchSurfing host, Mohammed. We had been in contact for weeks, getting everything ready, and shortly beforehand, he said he'd meet me in front of his college (Superior de Commerce, or Sup de Co) somewhere around 7pm. So, I decide to have dinner and get some Wi-Fi to check any messages I may have had. Unfortunately, most of the main Wi-Fi sources in the station had a terrible connection. I could only assume it was due to it being a busy Friday night, and too many people were trying to connect. I had another option, but it would cost me a bit of money, so I finished my food and went to a cafe on the side of the station that had password-protected Wi-Fi (I knew the password). I had to buy something, so I got a scoop of ice cream, which cost me 20Dh. I then used my time there to figure out where I needed to go, to see if Mohammed had messaged me recently (he hadn't), and wondered if I should call him prior to going over. I decided against it. I'd say that was the major mistake of the evening.

The school was about two-point-five miles away, so I decided to take a taxi. It was a very strange haggling experience.
"Sup de Co. 20 dirham?"
"40 dirham."
"How about 25?"
"No, 50 then?"
"Wait, 15?"
"No, 50."
"Hell, no!"
And as I walked away, he agreed to go for 30. He dropped me off in front of the school, and I took out my phone. I called Mohammed, and on the last ring, he picked up. I had learned from experience how disorienting the delay that my global number could have, and so I told him to listen carefully, because I didn't want to have to explain twice (as that cost me precious minutes). He asked me where I was. I told him. He started mumbling, then kept calling my name, and then hung up. I think it may have been a bad connection, but whatever, he knew I was ready to meet, and he should have known the location (he chose it, after all). So, I sat and waited. A number of young adults came and went from the school, and I checked if each of them could possibly be my host, but they paid me no mind. After about 20 minutes, I decided to send Mohammed a detailed text message. And then I waited again. After another 20 minutes, I called him again. "I can barely hear, where are you?" he asked. Half frustrated, half trying to make sure he could hear, I shouted "SUP DE CO! WHERE YOU SAID TO MEET!" He said something unintelligible (he said on the CouchSurfing website that he was an expert in English, and I can say he overestimates his abilities), and the hung up. I waited another 20 minutes and then decided to find a new landmark. There was a local McDonald's. Good, I thought, I can get Wi-Fi in there. I figured that maybe I could send him a message online. So I go in, and to avoid being kicked out, I ordered one of their desert things (McFlurry, I think? It was terrible regardless). This was my second mistake - ordering before confirming the Wi-Fi worked. Because again, there were so many people there that I couldn't get a connection.

I was getting mad. I sent Mohammed another text message, and then walked all the way back to the train station with my backpack. I knew that regardless of all else, I could find some Wi-Fi there. Nobody bothered me on the way, probably because my face had an expression somewhere between "glower" and "Dick Cheney". It took a while, but when I got back in, I sat back down at the cafe, ordered an overpriced tea (this was a very expensive night, to boot), and booted up my laptop. I sent Mohammed a message, saying I would book a hotel in the next hour unless he contacted me. Unfortunately, I didn't even have that long, because the cafe was closing soon. So I did a quick emergency search on nearby hotels (careful to avoid any in the medina's labyrinth). Finally finding one, I booked for three nights, just in case I didn't hear back from Mohammed.

I walked to said hotel, and told them I made a reservation online. The guy didn't even glance at his computer, and asked for payment. For some reason, neither of my cards worked, so I had to go back out, find an ATM, and give him the money. I was asking him about my reservation, because if I was considered a no-show, I'd be charged the full amount, plus whatever cash I had just handed over. He told me to just go up to my room. I didn't like this. I also wasn't too fond of the hotel, especially the Wi-Fi that took 25 minutes to upload a 1MB file. I used what little connection I had to find yet another hotel to work with for the next two days. I took a really weak shower, and went to bed, still tired and still dirty.

I woke up, packed my things, ate breakfast (which was surprisingly good, complete with hard-boiled eggs, which I greedily stole the whites from), and then went to the front desk to tell them I wanted to leave, and to make sure I wasn't charged for the online reservation. After getting that squared away, I walked to my new hotel. This one was actually very close to Djemaa el Fna, the open main court that I had passed by before. When I reached there, the staff took me to my room (a utilitarian but cozy space), and then brought me up to the terrace, where I was served orange juice and coffee cake, just 'cause. And this place was almost half the price of the other hotel. It soon became my favorite hotel of this entire trip. When Mohammed contacted me and asked when I what I wanted to do, I was fine saying that it would be just as well for me to stay in the hotel (though this was partially because I was over Mohammed; I had asked him several times to send me an exact time/place to meet after the debacle the night before, and each time he just replied with noncommittal language, probably because he couldn't understand me. I wanted my last two days to be relaxing; the last thing I wanted to do was stress over meeting him again. I swear, the CouchSurfing in Morocco is nowhere near as smooth as it is in Spain).

I got myself oriented in my room, and seeing that the hotel's Wi-Fi was blazing fast (well, for a Moroccan hotel), I decided to take as much advantage of this as possible. So I started uploading all my images to my Facebook account. This brings up a point I should address. I realize that this blog is primarily (well, almost exclusively) text-based. That's not because I have no pictures. But my high-quality camera is a double-edged sword, because all the images are pretty damn large. Short of just doing batch downsizing, that means that uploading them all is a process. And I have two places I upload them to. First is Facebook, the second is Flickr (which was my planned source for posting them on this blog). And that doesn't even take into consideration the time needed to add dates and descriptions and such. However, when push comes to shove, the Facebook uploads win out over Flickr. So, I am looking to see if I can maybe share my Facebook photos on the blog. Alternatively, you can also become my Friend on Facebook, and you'll be able to see them as soon as I upload them.

Anyway, enough of that meta-stuff. Before I knew it, it was evening, and so I decided I would try a meal in the square. Technically, Djemaa el Fna is considered part of the medina (as "medina" just means "old city", I think). But it's so very different than the winding, claustrophobic mazes that I first got lost in when I first arrived in Marrakech. In fact, I was genuinely enjoying it. The sights, the smells, the dozens of orange juice stands, the bustling nature of it all. It didn't seem so imposing to me anymore. Also, I noticed that I wasn't being harassed anymore. I wasn't dressed any differently than before, save maybe for the travel whiskers. But the touts and venders saw me, and passed me by for other tourists. And I think it's because they could tell I wasn't a newbie anymore. Something about me told them that. And that made it all the better.

There were no shortage of food stands (I guess they all set up in the evening), and walking through, they basically all seemed to offer the exact same menu. I sat down at one of them and, after a little internal debate, got a tajine (I wanted to veggies). A British couple sat down next to me, and we had a nice long conversation about the country, about traveling in general, and our experiences with the peddlers. When that was finished, I walked by a cart filled with a large number of sweets. I could get a sampler box for 20Dh, so I decided to. I then saw two women walk by, and try to ask the sweet vendor for just one or two. He tried to sell them the full box until I told him, "They're with me. I'll handle it." I then let the ladies take a couple of my sweets ("I don't care which, they all seem equally likely to make me diabetic") and found out that they had just arrived from California. I gave them advice on where to go, where to not go, what activities to do, how to avoid being scammed, a couple useful words, and they stood there, writing down on a piece of paper. Then it hit me.

I was that guy.

I had, in that moment, the savvy traveler who had spent enough time in a place to really get a feel for it, even if he didn't know the language. The type who can give you advice that isn't just guesswork and BS. I was a legitimate resource. And I may have helped these women have a more enjoyable trip than they would have otherwise. It felt good. And it might have been that air which had kept people from bugging me, and why I was enjoying walking around the square, seeing the flickering lanterns for sale, and watching light-up helicopters shoot up into the air. Maybe it was why, when I also decided to buy some dried apricots, I was able to get away with just giving them a price below theirs, and them accepting it. Maybe it's why I felt fully comfortable in this environment. Yes, I felt, I can do this.

After having walked around the square for another hour or so, I started going back to the hotel. That's when I remembered that I still haven't had avocado juice. So I went to a nearby cafe and ordered a glass. I filmed myself drinking it, so I'll post that shortly. Needless to say, I don't think it will be taking California by storm. It's actually somewhat of an anomaly - it's simultaneously delicious and repulsive. As the juice (I'd almost call it a sauce) sloshed over my tongue, I kept on flip-flopping my position on it, as though my taste buds were in constant conflict. It was very interesting. I would suggest trying it if you like avocado, but really only for the experience, not the taste.

I took a shower, and was surprised how late I was going to bed. 3am? It was like I lost an hour somewhere. Turns out, I had, as Morocco had moved into "summer time", meaning this was their "spring forward". Great, and I had to wake up early for my flight the next day. I woke up, had a nice breakfast, and continued uploading my photos online. I then decided the last thing on my list of things to in Morocco was visit a hammam, which is like a bath-house. There are two types of hammams - public ones and tourist ones. The public ones are much cheaper, but you have to bring your own supplies, and it really does just function like a public bathhouse. After my more than two weeks, and especially my frolicking in the sandy Sahara, I wanted to be pampered a little bit. I'm not above it.

I looked online for a couple of options, and found a bunch. There was one right across the way from my hotel, but it didn't seem like that was a good one. I decided to go for one of the more popular ones, which I knew was a bit of a gamble, since I didn't have a reservation. I left the hotel, went to a side-of-the-road shop at the square and had a nice lunch (a healthy quarter chicken, fries, and a large water for 3 Euro - not too shabby!) before heading off to the hammam. It was a good walk, going through a much more open part of the medina, still with some twists and turns, but much more navigable. It wasn't stressful in the slightest, despite itself. When I finally reached the place, they confirmed my fear that I needed a reservation, so I decided to try that place across from my hotel. But somewhere I made a wrong turn, and found myself on the other side of the city. Again, though, I didn't much mind this, and I think part of that was because it didn't have that closed-in feeling that the old-old medina had. I walked back, got a little bit lost again, and somehow, someway, I chanced upon a sign directing me to a different hammam, one I was also seriously considering. Happy accidents, I guess!

I went inside, and luckily enough, they didn't need an appointment. Unfortunately, they also didn't accept credit cards (it's a spa! It's for tourists! Why do they not figure this out!), so I used up a good chunk of the cash I had left. They then took me to room to strip to my briefs, which I realized would be soaking wet when this was all done. I figured I'd have to go commando back to the hotel. They then took me in for the massage first. Oh my goodness this felt awesome. They used some of that argan oil that was sold so freely on the road, and it was very relaxing. They also massaged my scalp (which seemed unusual for a massage, but I loved it), and even my face and chin, goatee be damned. Even if I had minded the long walk, this would have been worth it. The actual hammam part was less enjoyable. I had no idea what to do, and the people assisting me spoke next to no English, and their gesticulations were not terribly helpful either. And it's weird like I felt I was doing something wrong, because I wasn't really supposed to be doing anything - it was all supposed to be done to me. I got some goop rubbed all over me, had my feet soaking in rose water, and got scrubbed by an exfoliating glove, and then shepherded to a cool jacuzzi (cool as in temperature, not attitude). I tried relaxing in there, but at some point, they forced me out to go lie down and have my tea. I sat in what was basically a plush beach chair, and they served me a tiny glass of tea and one biscotti slice, and just as I was going to ask for another glass, they motioned for me to get up, and ushered me into the changing room. It was time for me to leave. Luckily, my quick-drying briefs were dry enough that I could put my pants over them without seeming like the world's most incontinent man. I left with mixed feelings. The massage portion was amazing, but the hammam portion, and the staff's clockwork treatment of me, really took me out of the experience. Ah, well, at least I had gotten that last item checked off.

As I walked back to the hotel, I saw something else I had to try: avocado ice cream. I mean, I already did the juice, why not this now? So, I bought a single scoop (only 9 dirham), and...wow. Forget all the conflict I had with the juice, this stuff was legitimately good. It possibly has a future in the US. We'll see.

Not much happened for the rest of the night, as a good portion of it was spent uploading more pictures and writing this blog (these things take time, you know)! I did have one last plate of tajine for dinner (and I do mean last; I don't think I want to see tajine in front of me for quite some time), ate what was left of my sweets and apricots for desert, marveled at how nice and shiny my hair was from the argan oil, had one last cup of tea at a nearby cafe, and then went to bed.

I woke up early to make sure I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It was all going fine, until I had to pay for the hotel. Like a fool, I had assumed they accepted credit card. I really need to stop doing that. Anyhoo, the receptionist was nice enough to walk me to an ATM. "Not enough cash." Huh. I tried another one. "Not enough cash." ...Huh. We went to a different bank. Same deal. A different bank. Same thing. I was starting to get worried that maybe it was a problem on my end. I called my bank, and they said everything was in working order on my end. So, we continued, literally trying over two dozen (!) ATMs, and getting cash out of none of them. Apparently, being the morning after a Sunday means that they're as drained as can be. We had to wait until 8am, when the hotel's owner opened his secondary shop, which had a card reader. I paid and ran out, irked at the hour I had lost. I stopped at the bus station to wait for the airport bus, but with my clock ticking, I just grabbed a taxi. I had read that they can charge as much as 400Dh for the ride, so when I offered 50Dh to a cab driver and got an "okay" in response, I was pleasantly surprised.

I got to the airport, and had plenty of time to spare. I took a short flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, and then a longer one to Rome. The only really thing of note was that some metrosexual guy sat next to me, not realizing that somebody on the previous flight has spilled water on the seat, getting his off-white pants slightly damp. He was super butthurt the rest of the flight, and refused to talk to his friend because of it. The schadenfreude was running all through my veins.

And that's it. That's all there is of my time in Morocco. Now it's time for you to go to bed (this holds true regardless of when you began reading this entry). The next time we talk, we'll be looking at the next leg of my journey in Italy! Who knows what will happen?

There will probably be pizza.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what an adventure and only the second leg of the journey. Quite impressive - just reading about the moonlight Sahara desert brought a vivid imagery of the desert sand in the pale blue moonlight. Quite the experience on its own. Glad you were able to help out those other travelers as well. It's always good to be useful.


    PS - the fact that you used the word butthurt kinda just made my day.