Oasis to Oasis
I’m at a rest stop firmly planted in a plastic deck chair. I am barricaded on all sides by traveling backpacks and batteries. My shirt sticks to my chest, it’s 90 degrees and I have been there for a while. My girlfriend is wandering around, looking for wifi. I sit, stoically, wondering how many more hours we will sit at this stop before we can get a ride. I wander and buy an ice cream bar to quell the heat. Beyond my bag barricade is a false oasis: Morocco’s Museum of Cinema, gilded with Egyptian gargoyles. I am on vacation in Morocco. What am I doing.
That sets the scene that this vacation (unlike this one or this other one) was mostly a disaster. Disaster is probably too harsh. Like taking a hurricane down to a tropical storm — I am going to downgrade this trip from a disaster to an adventure. Morocco was definitely an adventure. Weird and wild, I experienced as much of Morocco as I could.
Like most vacations, this one began with me frantically running through a packing list the day before the flight. Most vacations feel like they are coming up forever. Most vacations burst that bubble and your trip unfolds as planned. This vacation kinda snuck up on me. This is partially because I am not great with dates, and partially because I was so busy before it happened. My girlfriend Allison had lost her job and in a relatively bold move decided she would travel for six months. It is a truly awesome choice, but it did mean that time that may have been spent mutually filling that expectation bubble for this trip was spent selling furniture, cleaning house and generally figuring out the logistics of putting her life into boxes.
So this vacation reared its head just about the week before. We had an incredibly loose itinerary — Allison and I would meet in Gatwick Airport and fly together to Marrakesh where we had a riad booked. This part of the trip went off much better than I could have expected. Allison flew in from Prague, I got off a ten hour flight from Oakland and we just ran into each other in the customs line in the airport and proceeded as planned. We regaled how this was going to be a easy vacation.
Once we arrived in Marrakesh, I braced myself for the intensity that had greeted us in India. It never really came. We landed and were met with relative silence. Our driver took us through dark streets into the Medina (Medina is just middle/walled bit/old bit) of Marrakesh and guided us into our lovely riad (a courtyard style house that has a bunch rooms and is often turned into a hotel). My expectation that this trip would challenge my patience in the same ways that India had never really came true. Morocco found whole new ways to tickle my nerves.
Ancient cities still operate on the grid systems/organization and structure of a Pollock painting. Streets are not lined up so much as they are woven around landmarks. Buildings are stacked high and street names aren’t listed. It’s like a corn maze, but instead of corn it is leaning structures. Guide books refer to the medina as labyrinthine and I kinda laughed it off, but walking around requires an internal GPS that I don’t have. I could get lost in a mall, let alone the Medina and my lack of direction was paired with my lack of sleep or jet lag. At one point we tried to rectify our lack of internal cartography by having a kid lead us to a hamaam (more on hamaams later). He led us to a closed building deep in the medina and complained when we didn’t tip well. Some people say getting lost is their favorite part of travel, I too enjoy a fair bit of losing yourself in a new place. In parts of Marrakesh it was the norm to be lost. Lost is a way of life.
Marrakesh is large and has lots of stuff aimed at tourists. Snake charmers, acrobats, monkeys on chains are all readily available. Allison and I had picked up experience with touristy street life in India. We “could” ignore people trying to sell us on tours or cheap garments. I put “could” in quotes because I often still say hello, provoking an unwanted interaction. I can’t help it. Our experience in India also meant that we knew big cities were harsh and stressful and we much preferred the small towns and villages. We had planned to achieve more small towns and villages by taking a desert trip from Marrakesh to Fes. After giving up on a day of wandering around the medina because we both felt under the weather, we booked a trip through the hotel.
This decision, booking through the hotel, is the minute decision that left me temporarily stranded in a plastic chair on the side of a Moroccan highway. The next day we awoke at six and were crammed into a bus van with fourteen other travelers. We drove for hours. We drove out of the city through rural landscapes, past nomads and their herds of goats, past small villages but mainly past other tourists in their vans presumably doing the same trip as us. We drove into the High Atlas Mountains which were as stunning as the ride was uncomfortable. We stopped at a Berber town, which was more of a movie set than it was a town. I mostly watched Star Wars in the back of the van.
Eventually we pulled over next to a small fleet of camels. Riding the camels was more petting zoo than Lawrence of Arabia; the camels stacked full of tourists and tied together being pulled along by a man in berber garb. The camels provide little in the way of cushion and while riding them was fun, it was also similar to getting lightly kicked in the groin for an hour. Eventually our camp appeared in the distance, funky “berber” tents in a ring.
I spent dinner that night propped between a set of polite and friendly spaniards and some relatively loud and drunk English people. Allison speaks Spanish so she babbled away in a conversation I couldn’t understand and I was stuck listening to a Englishmen annoyingly banter about workplace injustices. Language is strange in that way. Our excursion into the desert really brought our inability to effectively communicate to light. We really never knew what was coming next, because we didn’t speak enough French or Arabic to communicate with our driver. The next day when we doubled back down the road we had come on. We had arranged a long tour and this turn back down the road made us think that we were driving all the way back to Marrakesh. If it wasn’t for a young French woman translating for us, we would have solemnly resigned ourselves to the 10 hours of misery driving back to Marrakesh instead of continuing to Fes as we had planned. This did however lead us to getting dropped off at the rest stop.
We did eventually get picked up after 3 hours. The next group was younger and very friendly, we learned that they too were on their way to do a camel trek. This was a bit of a blow, it meant we didn’t have fun activities planned for the next couple days. We had expected maybe ATVing and instead we had more weird tours of picturesque novelty Berber towns and lots more driving. Even with the knowledge that we weren’t going to have the dream tour we wanted, we started to get into the swing of things. Once we got the group to the second array of camels we were in relative high spirits. We had travelled from our camel spot further east, where the sands were bright orange and the dunes were massive. Our group was about to go on the camel excursion and a massive sandstorm blew in. The visibility was low and dirty. Having done the camel thing a few days prior we hopped out of our van-bus and trotted off to a hotel and had a nice night chatting with local guides and hanging out as the shutters clanged and the doors blew open. Our new friends from the van went out and camped in the dust chamber of a vacuum. The next day they returned like pigpen, trailing sand and a little worse for wear. A few of us got a cab to Fez but for the rest of the group had another long day of driving back to Marrakesh.
The long patch of Desert that we had spent the last few days broke and soon long grass and hills emerged. At one point it rained. Blink and you could have missed it. This dramatic scene change was a pleasant surprise after the 100 degree heat and terrifying winds of the night before.
We spent the next day wandering the “labyrinthine” streets of Fes. We had decided that night before that we deserved a hamaam after all of our “mistreatment”. Somewhere in my life I discovered a deep enjoyment in hot baths and spas. Call me a lush. Allison is my cohort in this affinity for steam and hot bathing. This is where the hamaam comes in. Hamaam is a kinda Moroccan spa treatment — it involves getting water thrown on you, being washed with fun new soaps, being scrubbed down with a Brillo pad mitten and then some kinda mud thing. Naturally we did it three times at three different hamaams. Real, local hamaams are something different and slightly more self serve; we opted for the tourist style which involves an attendant doing the water throwing and scrubbing. It’s like a foreign sponge bath. The room is steamy and hot or just steamy. The water ranges from bath to scalding. The throwing ranges from a gentle rinse to a light waterboarding. The mud could be a hair mask or it could just be putting some mud on you. The scrubbing is always kinda the same, vigorous. They always left us in a state of blissed out daze and punctuated each part to the trip.
The next day we rented a car. What was I doing. I am not really a great driver. My car in America has gained dents since I have owned it. Yet, I drove. A manual transmission too. After stalling a few times out of the parking lot, we poddled along in our bright blue Suzuki Celerio to Meknes. The drive was gorgeous, as is most of Morocco. Broad sweeping fields, rolling hills, nomads. The countryside reminds me of an untainted Californian landscape. No towns or people just grain and grass, golden and waving in the breeze. This drive was all on highways, and my bliss was cut down by the stressful entrance to the city. Steep cobblestone hills lined with people and the poor underpowered Celerio didn’t mix incredibly well, but we managed to park. I was covered in sweat at this point, but we managed to enjoy a relatively quiet afternoon in Meknes wandering its souks and getting lost in back alleys like you are supposed to do. The drive home meant more sweat, as all of the drives did. Eventually I got used to driving on the edge, nearly murdering pedestrians in the style that Morocco has embraced.
Due to my new found fear of city roads, the next day we opted for a less stressful cooking class which took us through the markets and had us making our own tagine. The labyrinthine streets had been demystified, we were soon running around, buying rugs and ignoring the calls to buy trinkets. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find fake Yeezys. I have larger feet than the average fake-sneaker-head and could not buy a $10 version of Kanye West’s limited shoe.
Allison and I have based our shopping decisions on whomever bothers us the least. This lead us into some fun encounters with shoe salesmen, walking in on a napping djellaba salesman and definitely got us into the most relaxed rug shop in all of Fez.
The next day we took the little blue car to the little blue town of Chefchaouen. The drive was four hours of serenity and pure fear. Beautiful fields, little towns and driving through winding mountain interspersed with passing trucks, loaded to the point where they could fall over on one lane roads. Soon out of the mountains we saw the little blue city. It is a place I knew about because of some “You Won’t Believe It’s Real” or “Ten bluest cities on the planet” list on Facebook. It is definitely real. It is also definitely beautiful. It is arguably the most photogenic place I have ever been. Judging by how many people appeared to be having their own photoshoots there, they agree. We wandered here for two days snapping tons of blue photos, making “I blue myself jokes” and generally relaxing. Chefchaouen is near the epicenter of global weed agriculture, so we did spend some time declining hash invitations, but even that seemed to add to the charm of that little town.
After our jaunt out to the mountains, it was time to go. We tucked in one more riad, one more tagine, and one more hamaam before we took a series of flights to London. London was a whirlwind 3 nights. We spent the first night walking around on empty stomachs enjoying a drink, the second in a wonderland version of Paris watching a screening of the Moulin Rouge and the third wearily languishing in a London hospital.
After landing, we found our way to the hipster haven of Shoreditch, and spent some time exploring and getting food. Most of our recommendations in London revolved around where to get a good meal. The second day was spent gathering costumes for Secret Cinema, which is a part acted/part watched screening of a movie, and we were dressing for the Moulin Rouge. This meant that we got to spend a bunch of time exploring vintage markets and food markets around brick lane before enjoying activities and absinthe at a faux version of the Moulin Rouge. There was singing and dancing and tons of fun. I spent most of the night cradling a bottle of champagne while prancing about. I hadn’t seen the movie before that day, and I had just assumed thats what it was like. I wasn’t far off.
My last day of vacation was set to be a quiet and calm one. We went to art galleries and had good food, but in the evening Allison came down with some serious stomach pain. It was late, but she contacted a physician who told her it was best to get checked out. This set in motion a very long night which was mostly spent waiting for a doctor to tell her that she was not dying, her appendix was fine and that while she was in a lot of pain it would most likely be temporary. We entered the hospital at 9pm and left at 7am. Allison was relatively stunned on painkillers but managed to pack up her stuff and we said our goodbyes. Delirious.
Was this the most relaxing vacation I have had? Absolutely not. Like I said at the beginning, not a disaster, an adventure. I don’t really grade my vacations, but even through all this whinging, I would give this a strong B. Most of the stresses of this trip were brought on by my lack of planning and general ignorance. For example, would I rent a car if I did this trip again, probably not — will I brag that I am a great driver because I drove in Africa, absolutely. Even driving meant that I got to experience the countryside in a completely different way. Which was all great. The foibles of this trip could be correctly chocked up to boneheaded tourism, rather than the landscapes unwillingness to have us.
Morocco was challenging. I had never been to a country whose primary religion was Islam. People were friendly, and although it felt natural to limit western behavior that may be disrespectful, it really didn’t effect anything. The meat I ate was Halal, but that doesn’t really change how it tastes. Kids still smile, play games and get shy when a stranger waves, not that that has anything to do with religion. I learned to enjoy tagine. While it isn’t the only thing Moroccans eat, tagine appears to be the only thing that tourists eat in Morocco. I learned how aggressively relaxed I am. I will force myself to just be calm and patient cause it seems like life is so much easier when I am apathetic to the madness around me.
That being said, next vacation is to the beach — I imagine the story will be much shorter.
Check Out Allison’s Images here. They are much better than mine. Also thanks babe.