Morocco. The name was as foreign to me as the country. I had been hanging out in Barcelona with a buddy of mine and had just struck out on my own. It was my first time travelling without the comfort of a companion and I was kinda nervous to be doing this on my own. As I sat at the bus station waiting for a ride to the Girona airport, a blonde girl sat down next to me and asked what bus number was going to the airport.
Lesson 1- Answer Blonde Girls When They Ask Questions
She was from California and was going to Marrakesh Morocco as well. Weird. She had been there before and even spoke some Arabic. She knew the customs and the best places to eat. She wrote down a bunch of words in Arabic on a notepad and I kept it with me as a cheat sheet. She was going to meet her husband there and once I stepped off of the airplane onto the ground I never saw her again, but she made the transition from Spain to Morocco super easy. Sometimes when you most need it, help turns up in the most unlikely places. Once out of the airport, I avoided the cabs that wanted to charge entirely too much and waited for a local bus to take me to the Medina.
Lesson 2 - Everything is Negotiable, From Cab Fare To An Orange
Morocco preys on the innocence of travellers. I found that out quickly enough. Cabs ranged from 50 dirhams to 150 for the half hour ride. I was able to negotiate some cabbies down but ended up getting a round trip on the bus for less than half that. As time progressed, I got good at bargaining and it started to come more natural for me. I once got a handmade shirt down to a third of the original price, and then felt bad and tipped the guy extra.
Lesson 3 - Everything Waits Until Prayer Time Is Over. (And Take Your Shoes Off Before Entering A Mosque)
I boarded the bus, put my belongings down, and turned to ask the bus driver a question. He had disappeared and I found him outside kneeling on his prayer mat. I relaxed in my seat and waited. The bus left late. My first morning there, I nearly pooped myself when a voice wailed out the morning call to prayer via loudspeakers before daybreak. It took me a while, but I got used it. Once, I answered the call and headed to the mosque to see what was going on. I milled about the various venders selling Qurans, spices and trinkets outside the doors and watched the faithful enter and exit, leaving their shoes on the doorstep or carrying them in plastic bags. More than a few people stopped to give change to the old lady who held her gnarled hands up in a plea for help.
Lesson 4 - What Toilets?
Speaking of poop... there aren't any toilets, or toilet paper, or soap at the sinks. Unless you're in a touristy hotel, of course. I came prepared with hand sanitizer, but nothing prepares you for the first time you enter the stall, remove your pants and squat into a hole in the ground. There is a little faucet beside you for cleaning, and sometimes a bucket. Trust me, don't touch the bucket. Enough said.
Lesson 5 - Hire A Guide To Help You Find Your Hotel
Inside the medina, which is basically the old, walled portion of Marrakesh, the streets are literally a maze. Google maps does nothing to help you. Cobblestone streets, high brick walls and roofs cover many of the tiny alleys and streets and they literally all look the same. I found my hostel only with a guide, who was constantly trying to sell me hash. Probably not a good idea to buy.
Lesson 6 - Moroccans Are Really Genuine People (For The Most Part)
I found the people in Marrakesh to be very pushy, very persistent. Once I understood that they had to be that way to make enough money to survive, I didn't mind as much. Once I left and made my way down to Zagora, I couldn't believe the difference. I met two brothers there, Ali and Younes who invited me into their home and showed me around the city. They cooked for me, gave me a place to stay and explained their way of life for me. I hung out with them and their friends, and everyone greeted me with a hand over their heart and the phrase, Salam allykum, which is returned with Allykum salam meaning "Peace be with you" and "And also with you," respectively. They even hooked me up with a buddy of theirs who does tours out into the Sahara via dromedary!
Lesson 7 - The Sahara Is Super Cold At Night (And Dromedaries Make You Sea Sick)
Being on the back of a dromedary is a bit like being on a small boat in rough seas. You eventually get used to the motion, but at first it's quite unsettling. I kept my eyes on the horizon until the nausea passed. Later that night, the stars were incredible. With no light pollution, I saw more stars out in the desert than I ever have before. I sat and watched the far off galaxies and then ate tagine made in a clay pot over a campfire and slept in a goat hair tent, piled high with thick blankets. It was easily below freezing at night after the heat of the day. Later at night, I wrote this in my journal. It is also an excerpt from my novel.
It is a new and constantly changing yet ageless landscape on which we walk. As the sands of the Sahara desert that my dromedary so consistently plodded, so is the path of life constantly evolving and shifting, yet remaining the same. The footprints of the ones before and the seemingly endless dunes of life themselves shift, grow, move and are covered up with the winds of evolution. We are part of that evolution and should not fight it. Never was I so sure of that truth than when surrounded by this reality and lost amid the endless sand dunes and barren landscape of the Sahara desert. Nothing matters in the desert, but the slow, inevitable plod of the pack animals. When that ceases, the journey is indeed over for the day, for man in all his cunning and invention, relies on the power and persistence of a beast for the preservation and furthering of his own life. To me, the desert speaks of life as much as it does of death. It is a barren and brown landscape with rocks, hard packed dirt and sand. Despite this, the small shrubs and weeds struggle on and refuse to die in the scorching heat of a sun that burdens the landscape. Though rooted, not by choice, in an unforgiving soil and under the intensity of the scrutiny of the ever watchful eye of the sun, the little green heads of the shrubs bow down in the midday heat, but by evening stand tall again refusing to give up. I decided it is this tenacity that I must mimic.
Lesson 8 - Sweet Herbal Tea Is Moroccan Whiskey
Because Morocco has a largely Muslim population, alcohol is hard to find. So what do people drink when they hang out and talk on a Saturday night? The answer is tea. With lots of sugar. The person who orders the tea is responsible for it. This includes putting just the right amount of sugar in it, pouring it properly so that there is just the right amount of bubbles on top (otherwise it's no good) and making sure everyone's cup is full. It's a very important custom and not one to be taken lightly. I found this out by accidentally pouring a cup for myself and not getting the bubbles proper, much to the chagrin of my Moroccan mates. Plus I touched the tea pot when it wasn't mine to touch. Oops.
Lesson 9 - Say Your Prayers Before Taking A Coach Bus Through The Atlas Mountains
The road between Zagora and Marrakesh has no guard rails and twists and winds itself around blind corners through the Atlas Mountains, which is a beautiful site to see when you're not scared for your life. On the way back to Marrakesh to catch my flight home, our coach bus took this road at breakneck speed with no regard for other vehicles on the road. The inevitable happened and we side swiped an oncoming truck around one of these blind corners. After a lot of cursing and hand wringing, the bus driver paid off the guy he hit and we continued on our way. Luckily no one got hurt and I made some friends that day. Something about a near death experience tends to bond you to those around you. Bit of an ice breaker, I'd say.
Lesson 10 - I Miss Morocco
Despite almost dying, the heat, the crowded cities, and lack of toilets, I fell in love with Morocco and its people. It is a beautiful country, filled with everything imaginable. There are mountains in the north, beaches to the west, deserts to the south and cities and towns filled with amazing people wherever you go. I don’t know what caused me to lose my heart in Morocco. Maybe it was the need to experience something new and the foreignness of it all, the fact that it was polar opposite to everything that is familiar. Maybe it was the expansion of my comfort zone caused by the maze like streets in the medina in Marrakech, where the locals stare at you curiously and hassle you to buy hash. Maybe it was the adrenaline in my veins as we raced around blind corners in a tour bus through the Atlas Mountains or the lack of toilets and toilet paper. It could’ve been the haunting sounds of the Quran being chanted from loudspeakers over the city or the musical sound of flutes and stringed instruments in Jemaa El Fna to the guttural singing in Arabic and Berber or the more musical French. Maybe it was the openness of the desert and the openness of the culture. Or maybe it was the sweet herbal tea. Whatever it was, I found a sense of belonging. And I know if I ever get the chance to return, it will be a feeling of returning to the most crazy, amazing and intense place in this world. I would be returning home.
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Jonathan Beam is the author of Crimson Morning - The Philosophy of Travel, available on the member page by signing up above. He is a blogger who writes about travel, adventure and philosophy. He has also written a novel that is currently under consideration to be published!