If All Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge…

 I am a big fan of the quote ‘do something that scares you every day.’ I think it’s an easy way to inject a little adventure into your life. So, when my friends in Cadiz said we were going to jump off a bridge of course I had to follow. All I’d done that day was lay on the beach…relaxing yes, but certainly not a challenge, unless you count laying out in a bikini a challenge. Which, to be fair, it sometimes is…but I was looking for a bit more of an adventure.

After living in Muslim country being in public in a bikini could be considered  a challenge

After living in Muslim country being in public in a bikini could be considered a challenge

We crawled up from our beach towels and set off across the sand to a wall extending and few hundred meters off the coast to a castle. The stone walkway was basically just a series of bridges extending further and further out into the ocean. We walked out to the furthest bridge where local boys young and old were already showing off with backflips and dives into the clear blue water below. Looking down you could clearly see the rocks extending a few feet out from the wall…and the rocks surrounding a surprisingly small patch of blue water we were all aiming for. Even if you ignored the rocks, the water looked to be about 5 feet deep at most.

Claire, who had done this once before, launched herself off the side of the bridge without a second thought. The rest of the girls followed slowly but surely, until I was the last one left. Now, I am a very strong swimmer, I’m not afraid of water and I’m not afraid of heights. However I have a problem committing sometimes. When jumping from something you have to commit, because once you jump there’s no going back. You need to just let go and leap. I was having trouble with the whole ‘letting go’ part. I stood at the edge rocking forward and backward while my friends yelled at me from the water. A few little boys egged me on, jumping around me, showing how easy it was.

I still don’t know why I was so afraid to jump. But at long last I found that moment of clarity, where your stomach drops and your head clears, and I launched myself into the sea before any doubts could creep back in.

I kicked up to the surface, took a breath, wiped the salt from my eyes and smiled at my cheering friends. “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” I said, laughing at the ridiculousness of the fear I’d been needlessly fighting for the past fifteen minutes.

The infamous bridge at low tide, but you can see where the water would be at high tide

The infamous bridge at low tide, but you can see where the water would be at high tide

So there are two morals to this story. One: everything your parents told you in wrong, if all your friends jumped off a bridge you should absolutely jump too (within reason of course). Two: everyday find a way to push your boundaries and conquer your fears. You may find that you fear is unnecessary, or that you’re braver than you think. Worst comes to worst you’ll have a good story to tell.

Beautiful Cadiz, you've stolen my heart

Beautiful Cadiz, you’ve stolen my heart

(P.S. I’m posting this from a train in Austria, because Austrian trains are luxurious and wonderful AND have wifi!)

Posted in Stories from the Road, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saying M’a Ssalama

I don’t think I’ve quite come to terms with that fact that I’m leaving Morocco. I’m not heading directly back to the US so really it just feels like I’m taking a little holiday before going back to study more Arabic with Professor Driss. However it’s true, this little section of my life is over. I now get to be that obnoxious friend that talks about ‘that one time in Morocco’ and used random Arabic phrases like ‘yaala’ and ‘insha’ Allah’ and puts too much sugar in her coffee.

I am excited to go home and eat whatever I want without fear of food poisoning, wear whatever I want without offending anyone, and being able to communicate in English and not some broken French-Arabic hybrid. But there is a lot I’m going to miss about Morocco. I’m going to miss how cheaply you can travel in Morocco and how easily you can access Europe. I’m going to miss fresh squeezed orange juice for less than a dollar. I’m going to miss the ability to live without the use of a car, an impossibility in Phoenix. Most of all I’m going to miss the slow pace at which everything moves in Morocco, everything except the taxis of course.

I’m sure it won’t take me long to readjust to the American way of life again and I’m sure I won’t truly appreciate my time in Morocco until I’ve gained a little bit of distance…and actually go back home. But if I can say one thing for sure Morocco gave me a love for simply being abroad. Being in a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t totally understand the culture is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, you either sink or swim. You learn to adapt and you learn to appreciate, because everything is more interesting when done in another country.

So, while I’m leaving Morocco I’m off for two more months of travel, so the adventure isn’t over just yet. Insha’ Allah I’ll come back to Morocco someday and see how everything has changed. But for now, ma’ ssalama Morocco…it’s been fun.

On a ferry, bound for Spain.

On a ferry, bound for Spain.

Posted in Morocco, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Only in Morocco

Somehow over the past four months I’ve become accustomed to some very odd aspects of daily life in Morocco that I never thought I would ever get used to. Here are the top three ‘only in Morocco’ things you should be prepared for if you ever choose to live/visit Morocco.

1. Grand taxis.

I never thought I’d get used to grand taxis. Weaving through the streets in an old Mercedes held together by seat belts and prayers is a terrifying form of transportation. But every morning we’d cram four people into the backseat and two people into the front passenger seat and rattle toward the university. It felt a bit like sardines in a can, we were packed in so tightly you’d have to lean into your fellow passengers just to get the door to shut. For a long time I would try to make sure I never sat next to the door out of fear that one day it would pop open, shooting me out on to the busy street. After four months I’ve grown accustomed to sitting on the laps of strangers while the driver speeds through traffic, occasionally pumping the brakes as cars cross the road in front of us. I no longer tense up when the driver weaves into oncoming traffic or cringe as we rocket through intersections, narrowly missing a truck full of cows. Though I will say I am excited to go home and drive my own car through orderly American traffic.

My roommate Kirsten, reacting to yet another near miss in a grand taxi

My roommate Kirsten, reacting to yet another near miss in a grand taxi

2. Insha’ Allah

Translated directly as “If God wills” is not just a phrase used in Arabic speaking countries. It is a lifestyle. While I knew life moved at a different pace in Morocco than it does in the States, I wasn’t prepared for an entirely new way of living. Everything in Morocco is done on an Insha’ Allah basis. Is the guy going to come fix the hot water? Insha’ Allah…mean maybe, maybe not. Are we meeting at 6? Insha’ Allah….meaning, yeah, if I don’t forget. Basically you never know when, or if, anything is going to happen and if it does happen it’ll probably be late. Unfortunately I have adopted this new lifestyle and while it allows for much more flexibility and less stress I’m sure my friends, family and teachers will not appreciate it when I get back to the States.

3. Sugar Overload

There is sugar on almost everything. I even had a dish called bastilla that is literally chicken in dough, topped with brown and powdered sugar. They put sugar in the fruit juice, on sliced fruit, they boil it into the tea and plop at least two cubes (and the sugar cubes are twice the size of cubes in the US) into tiny cups of coffee. I have a sweet tooth, but even I have my limits. However, here I am writing this blog post, pouring sugar into my iced coffee because it just doesn’t taste right without it. I’m sure my dentist will be overjoyed to see me when I get home.

It's about 90% and 10% mint leaves. But it's tea so it's healthy....right?

It’s about 90% and 10% mint leaves. But it’s tea so it’s healthy….right?

Posted in Africa, Food, Hospitality, Morocco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hike in a Holy Land

People say it’s hardest to be a tourist in your own city. You always put off that one attraction the rest of the world comes to see. Well, less than 30 minutes outside of Meknes is the small town of Moulay Idriss. Moulay Idriss happens to be the place at which Islam gained its first foothold in Morocco, a country that is now 99% Muslim. Needless to say it is kind of a big deal as far as the history of Morocco goes, and of course, I hadn’t been.

The last weekend in Morocco was basically spent looking forward to leaving Morocco. However, in a last ditch effort to get out the apartment, my roommate Kimmy and I decided to go Moulay Idriss for a little hike, just so we could say we’ve been.

We walked to the taxi stand around the corner and prepared ourselves for a long hard haggling session. Since we were both blonde, and in beginning Arabic, haggling was always a bit of a daunting task. Instead we were loaded into a cab with four other people, paid four dirhams and were on our way.

When we arrived in Moulay Idriss we decided to just go uphill until there was no hill left to go up. This led us quickly out of town and toward the river. Along the river there was a very inviting stone pool. We vowed to reward ourselves with a dip in the pool on our way back down and continued up hill, following what must have been a river less than a few months ago. It wasn’t easy going…we had procrastinated our departure this morning and were now hiking up a steep, rocky hill in the middle of the day.

We stopped a few times to hit up what little shade we could find and to drink some water. Eventually we realized that if we kept going up, we’d be going up for days. So, we switched course slightly, aiming for a ledge overlooking the valley and Moulay Idriss. After losing our trail we half bushwhacked, half rock-climbed up the last few feet before sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labor, meaning a fantastic view of the valleys around Moulay Idriss and Meknes.

Just taking it all in

Just taking it all in

We took off the long-sleeved shirts we’d been wearing and sat there in our tank tops. We assumed that no Moroccans felt like climbing a mountain today so there was little chance of our exposed shoulders offending anyone. After a bit of a breather at the top I followed Kimmy down the hill. We took what looked more like a trail and ended up skidding down a hill where the trail had been washed out. We used trees to catch ourselves as we ran/skidded down the hill and ended up back at the river.

We found, to our dismay that our pool had been taken over by a large group of adolescent boys and a few of their older brothers. We decided we’d walk back into town and get ourselves a congratulatory orange juice instead. I do not regret that choice because, like all juice in Morocco, it was fresh squeezed and perfect for how hot and muggy the day had become.

After an animated discussion with the man at the table next to us we walked back down and caught another four-dirham cab home. After fighting off sleep in the cab, grabbing another juice on our way home, Kimmy and I came back to our apartment dirty and sweaty, but feeling like we’d accomplished something…so we proceeded to our corners of the couch for a solid book/Netflix binge and a nap without any guilt.

Posted in Africa, Morocco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hostel Review – Oasis Backpackers Mansion, Lisbon

Your home away from home in Lisbon. Photo from Oasis Hostels website.

Your home away from home in Lisbon. Photo from Oasis Hostels website.

If you read my previous post you already know that I love Lisbon. I had an amazing experience there and I’m going to attribute some of that to my accommodations.

When I initially decided to go to Lisbon I was told by multiple friends, and friends of friends, to stay at the G-Spot Hostel. So I booked myself in for a week. Unfortunately I got an email I few days before my flight letting me know that the G-Spot was currently having some construction done making it impossible for me to stay there.

To their credit they gave me a two hostel to choose from (one with a similar location, the other with a similar atmosphere) and transferred my booking at no extra costs to me. I chose Oasis because they said it was known for its atmosphere and when you travel alone atmosphere is important.

When you first arrive at Oasis you get a ticket for a complimentary shot of some pretty potent Portuguese alcohol at the in house bar. There is a beautiful patio out back where I spent a lot of afternoons socializing over a giant bowl of white sangria and maybe some cheese if we were feeling fancy. There’s also a lounge across from the bar. Every night the tables are pushed together and dinner is served for 7.50 euro. At 7.50 it’s one of the cheaper meals you’ll get in Lisbon and the meal is always excellent…and it comes with dessert. One night we had mojito mousse, which is basically heaven in mousse form.

The hostel is located directly between the bars in Barrio Alto and the clubs, making it easy to stumble home after a immersing yourself, and your liver, in the nightlife of Lisbon. It’s also within walking distance of two train stations, a tram station and the metro. Most of the main attractions are within walking distance, or you can take one of the historic trams if you’re not up for climbing hills all day. There’s a grocery store around the corner and just up the street there is a small park overlooking the river where people will gather in the late afternoon for some drinks and snacks.

The accommodations are exactly what you’d expect from a hostel. It’s clean, there’s hot water (usually) and the beds are basic, but I promise you won’t be spending much time in your room.

The hostel provides lots of activities that are cheap, if not free. There’s a walking tour lead by a history major from San Francisco who will get you drunk on cherry liquor, teach you the history of Lisbon, show you how to sneak into some of the main tourist attractions for free and show you where to find the best coffee and pastel de nata in the city. There’s also a street art tour, picnics under the Jesus statue and, of course, a bar crawl.

The bar crawl is ten euros entails one (but usually two) hours of free drinks at the hostel bar, free shots at each bar, free entry to a club and a wrist band with the address of the hostel on it, just in case. It is not a bar crawl for the weak of heart (or liver).

The staff is also very knowledgeable and will help you get around the city, or out of the city. They’ll help you find trains to anywhere and tell you all the good places to go and see like the Thieves Market, the castle in Sintra or the beach in Carcavelos. They’ll direct you to the best places to eat and drink for cheap at any time of day. Basically they are the best resource for anything relating to your time in Lisbon.

I loved this hostel and would go back in a heartbeat. It’s excellent for solo travelers. The location is great, the food is amazing, the drinks are phenomenal and the hostel has a very welcoming and social vibe that makes it easy to find people to hangout with or go out with at any time of day or night. You won’t be lonely, you won’t sleep, you’ll drink too much and probably fall in love with the magic that is Lisbon.

Posted in Hospitality, Planning, Start Wandering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And then I was a Surfer

Well there I was, in Lisbon on spring break with no plans and I found a little card for a surf school on the desk at my hostel. That card sat in my wallet for 5 days. Then, the night before my last day in Lisbon, I found that little card again while paying for a big glass of my favorite white sangria.

I asked Vinny, the bartender, how much he thought surf lessons would be and ten minutes later he had booked me a 2-hour lesson, wrote down directions on a napkin and sent me back to my sangria.

The next morning I made myself a chorizo and cheese sandwich to go, grabbed and apple, some yogurt and walked 5 minutes to the train station. After tracking down a map, conveniently owned by some English-speaking Germans, and refilling my metro card, I hopped on a train toward Cascais (Cas-cay-sh). Less than 20 minutes later I was walking on a sunny beach in the little city of Carcavelos.

I met my instructor, a 30-something beautiful Brazilian man who spoke very little English, and my surfing partner, a Norwegian man on vacation. After shimming into a wet suit I was handed a pink Roxy board and lead down to the beach. After a little warm up and some stretching we received a quick lesson on how to get up on the board.

This didn’t come easy for me. I kept putting my knee down or ending up too far on one side of the board. After many attempts and some pointers from the instructor he eventually gave up, said it was close enough, and lead us into the water.

He showed us how to paddle as he walked beside our boards. Eventually he stopped walking and grabbed the front of my board and spun me so I faced the beach. “When I say up, you get up,” he said. I could hear the wave behind me and then my teacher shout “UP!” I pushed up with my arms, put my knee down and promptly fell.

We repeated this exercise over and over until suddenly I was up! Sort of…my back knee was still awkwardly placed on the board in more a lunge stance than a standing position, and a may have almost run over a fellow surfer, but this was progress. Eventually I did actually stand up and rode a wave until it lost momentum near the beach. Then I learned there is no graceful way to get off a surfboard and fell on my butt in the shallow water.

The two hours passed too quickly. I could’ve continued but it was almost slack tide so the waves were dying. I dragged my board back up the beach, wiggled out of my wetsuit, hopped in an ice cold shower, put on some dry clothes and set off in search of beer.

Beer in hand I walked back down to the beach to enjoy my lunch in the sand. I sat awhile, enjoying the sun. A few hours later I was back on the train to Lisbon, feeling accomplished in my new ability to surf small, nonthreatening waves and getting my first tan lines of the summer.

Post surf lunch spot...doesn't get much better

Post surf lunch spot…doesn’t get much better

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Love with Lisboa

I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I went to Lisbon.

I emerged from the underground metro into a small plaza. The sun was shining on a the pastel colored buildings and a group of b-boys were dancing for a crowd in front of a statue of some famous Portuguese guy (probably an explorer/sailor of some sort). That was it; I was in love with this city.

Lisbon has an excellent first impression

Lisbon has an excellent first impression

I spent a week in Lisbon and fell head over heels for this city. The Portuguese people are beautiful, friendly, incredibly laid-back and Lisbon mirrors that.

Each morning I would wake up somewhere between 9 am and noon, grab a small breakfast, some eggs on toast or a yogurt, and set out for the day. I came to Lisbon with no plan so everyday I’d pick a new direction and start walking, stopping whenever I found something interesting or delicious.

My third morning is Lisbon I decided I wanted to reach the highest point in the city. I hoofed it up hill after hill until I reached a viewpoint overlooking the entire city. I sat down to take in the view and listen to two men serenade a women drinking at a cafe.

A foggy morning in Lisbon...and I'm still in love

A foggy morning in Lisbon…and I’m still in love

On the way down I realized I was hungry and two minutes later I rounded a corner to find yet another view point. This one overlooking the historic Alfambra neighborhood and the river below. Like all viewpoints in Lisbon, as well as almost every plaza and park, this one came equipped with a tiny coffee shop and bar. It was nearly  11 am and I hadn’t eaten breakfast so I ordered a café ole and one of Portugal’s traditional egg cream pastries.

Good morning Lisbon, you're beautiful, even with a little fog.

Good morning Lisbon, you’re beautiful, even with a little fog.

I just sat, sipping my coffee and enjoying my pastry, taking in the view of the city below me. For a while I was joined by a portly Portuguese man drinking was appeared to be a liter of beer, because in Portugal it’s never too early to start drinking.

Around 3 or 4 pm, after a long day or walking or surfing, I discovered my favorite part of life in Portugal. In the late afternoon the entire city would flock to the river, or a viewpoint overlooking the river, to watch the sunset. Most would share a beer or two with friends, someone was always playing a guitar, and others would just lie in the sun and take a little siesta. I would generally make myself a small sandwich of chorizo and cheese to snack on and, once I’d finished that and a beer or two, I’d find a nice patch of sunshine to take a little nap in. It became a daily tradition.

My afternoon spot, overlooking the river and the statue of Jesus

My afternoon spot, overlooking the river and the statue of Jesus

I soon learned that the late lunch and nap were actually a necessary part of Lisbon. There was no way you’d make it through a night without it.

The days in Portugal are very easy going but at night the city transforms. Thanks to the lack of laws about drinking in the streets suddenly everywhere is a party. After finishing dinner around 11 pm or midnight everyone heads to Barrio Alto where there are hundreds of people hopping between the hundreds of tiny bars with fifty-cent beers and liters of mojito. However the party was always outside the bar where everyone was mingling, dancing, or trying to finish their drink as they walked to their next destination.

This carried on until 2 am at which point the bars close and there is a mass exodus of Barrio Alto. Of course the night isn’t over. After two hours of heavy drinking it was time to head downhill, both physically and mentally, toward the clubs by the river where you’d dance until you dropped.

People would emerge from the club somewhere between 5 and 8 am, exhausted, drunk but with a sense of accomplishment of a night well done.

Or course this is Lisbon, so if you’re looking to take it easy, you could always join your friends at a park or on someone’s patio for a night of drinks and general discussion. Regardless you won’t hit your pillow until at least 4 am.

Of course it’s not all about the nightlife. Lisbon is a big city so there’s a ton to see and do and eat, and it’s all easy to walk to, as long as you don’t mind a bit of a hill workout. If you’re feeling like getting out of the city a bit you can take a train 40 minutes out to Sintra, a little town where you can hike around the ruins of a Moorish castle, or take a local train 20 minutes down the river to the beach. You can rent surfboards and bikes for cheap or you can just get your tan on in the sand.

The streets of Sintra

The streets of Sintra

Lisbon is a hugely underrated city. It’s cheap, it’s beautiful and it has a vibe about it that can’t be found anywhere else, at least as far as I know. I loved it so much I’m already planning my return trip.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Frolicking in the Friouato Caves

I only heard about the caves the week prior to this adventure. A group of friends had found it after a day trip to Fez and, after hearing them rave about the place for days, a few friends and I planned a day trip. By planned I mean we decided on which train to take to Taza.

Of course when I showed up at their apartment the next morning no one was ready. After a sprint to the train station we watched as the train to Taza pulled out of the station 2 minutes early.

Instead we were forced to cram all 5 of us into a grand taxi for a 4 hour drive to Taza. I was able to kind of sleep for the majority of the 4 hours, but once we got near the city I was wide awake and on the look out for somewhere with a bathroom. Thankfully only a few minutes into the city I spotted a Marjane, the Moroccan version of WalMart, which had a high probability of have both modern toilets AND toilet paper.

After a bathroom break and some snack shopping we hailed two petite taxis, which took us to a grand taxi station, where we struggled for about 20 minutes trying to get a reasonably priced ride to and from the caves. Finally we settled on a price, hopped into the cab and began the hair raising drive up a narrow mountain road.

The view from the top

The view from the top

Finally we reached the top where there was a small shack and a set of stairs leading up to a small wooden door. We were suited up with well worn jumpsuits, helmets and headlamps. We stashed our bags, grabbed cameras and, after a quick picture, followed our guide up the stairs and through the door. We then proceeded down sets of steep, slippery stairs. At first we gripped the handrails built into the rock wall but soon the handrails vanished but by that time we were hopping down the stairs with relative ease. We’d had literally thousands of steps worth of practice, we were now pros.

IMG_0873

The decent

Finally the stairs ended. The only place left to go was down a small, human sized hole in the ground. Our guide crawled in, feet first and told us to follow him. I looked up toward the top of the cave, to the last rays of sunshine I’d see for the next few hours, and then lowered myself into the hole in the ground, feeling around for foot holds and trying not to bang my head on the way down.

IMG_0874

Goodbye sunshine

It took a few minutes of head bumps and dirty palms but we made it through the crawl space and into a HUGE cavern. It was impossible to tell how big since our headlamps were fairly subpar but you could look up and maybe see a gray slab of rock over your head.

We walked for hours, climbing up ladders, over crevasses, walking ledges between underground lakes and over rickety bridges. I felt a little like Aladdin in the cave of wonders, you know, after all the treasure disappeared.

On the edge of an underground lake

On the edge of an underground lake

We wandered behind out guide for almost two hours, and then we realized our taxi driver was still waiting for us up on the surface. So we turned around, climbed over a ridge between two lakes, down a ladder, tightroped over a plank bridge and finally back to the tiny manhole that would lead us back to the surface.

After struggling back up thousands of stairs we emerged, breathless, into the light. After catching our breath, we ditched our now mud-covered jumpsuits, paid our guide and jumped back in to our waiting cab.

We rocketed down the mountain, stopping occasionally for pictures, and our nice cabbie drove us all the way to the train station. Unfortunately we had missed the last train to Meknes, so again we got back in the cab and drove to a lot full of grand taxis. Our cab driver negotiated a price to get us back to Meknes, a price that dropped once he found some other random guy who also happened to be heading to Meknes.

3 hours later, shorter this time because we took a toll road, we arrived in the main square between our two apartments. We said goodnight, I pulled my hood over my hair, and walked quickly home, head down. I got plenty of looks but only a few catcalls before I made it around the corner and into my apartment.

From there I took a loooooong hot shower then proceeded to stuff my face with leftovers from the fridge. Caving takes a lot out of you…or maybe it was just the stairs.

The caving crew. Photo courtesy of Jordan Russo

The caving crew. Photo courtesy of Jordan Russo

 

Posted in Africa, Morocco, Stories from the Road, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under the Saharan Stars

Before I left the hospital I made sure to ask my doctor one very important question: ‘will I be able to ride camels in the Sahara next weekend?’ He looked at me a bit funny and said “yes, just try not to get sick.”

A week later I was on a bus heading south. We drove through the green fields around Meknes, through the snow covered mountains between Ifrane and Azrou and then descended into the desert. We drove for almost 8 hours watching as the landscape decayed into dust.

I’m not unaccustomed to deserts. I’ve lived in Phoenix for the past three years but Merzouga was something entirely different. We pulled into the tiny town just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. In front of us were massive sand dunes, glowing orange in the dying light. It looked like the opening scene of Aladdin, both beautiful and totally unreal, like someone had just painted these orange masses on an otherwise flat landscape.

Sand dunes at sunset

Sand dunes at sunset

We threw our bags on to a tractor, which we followed into the dunes to a circle of camel hair tents that we’d call home for the next two nights. Our bags were piled in the middle of the tents and I picked through the mess trying to locate my jacket, backpack and water bottles. I found the jacket and the backpack, unfortunately the water bottles where nowhere to be found, ideal for the desert. Thankfully my friends donated some of their water so I was able to survive the next two days.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

With our luggage all sorted and dinner nowhere in sight we proceeded up to the dunes to feel the sand between our toes and watch what appear to be a never-ending sunset.

A walk in the Sahara at sunset

A walk in the Sahara at sunset

Slowly people made their way back to the circle of tents where our hosts, three young Tuareg men clad in blue robes and giant turbans, had started a rousing drum performance which was slowly taken over but much less talented Americans. Before we could get too far dinner arrived.

As the night wore on people made their way out to the dunes, some toting tiny bottles of wine, others determined to cross the desert and climb the giant dune in the distance. I ended up in bed early, but woke up around 3 am when the wine-totting group returned to camp. Unable to slip easily back to sleep I went out and joined another group talking quietly up on the dunes under the most amazing sky of stars I’d ever seen. Roughly an hour later I found my way back to my tent and into my sand covered sheets.

I woke up to lights peaking through the holes in the roof of my tent. I poked my head out of my tent and realized the sun wasn’t even up yet. I grabbed my camera and set out across the dunes. I was followed by a Tuareg man who insisted he knew the best place to watch the sunrise and, impervious to my efforts, ended up just following me to the top of a dune maybe five minutes from camp.

Sunrise in the Sahara...better go get my sunscreen

Sunrise in the Sahara…better go get my sunscreen

Once I got the shot I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I was watching a sunrise in the Sahara Desert before heading back to camp. Once I got back the Tuareg man immediately unpacked his bag and began laying out little stone camels and jewelry. “A moment,” he said, “for Berber crafts.” This isn’t an uncommon thing in Morocco, but it was expected here in Merzouga where tourism was the driving force behind this tiny village in a sea of sand.

I walked back to camp, waving and calling “la shukran” (‘no thank you’ in Arabic) over my shoulder. This was unnecessary since the man spoke perfect English, but it’s a habit I’ve picked up in the past few months.

I crawled back into my sandy sheets and slept until breakfast. After a little bit of milwee and a reluctantly ingested hardboiled egg I emerged from the breakfast tent to a flurry of multicolored scarves. I joined my fellow Americans and began digging through the piles of cotton to find the perfect color for me. Instead I found the perfect color for my little sister and then finally found the dark blue I was searching for. I bought both, then stood awkwardly as one of the men wrapped the scarf around my head and pulled it over my face.

Dressed to impress

Dressed to impress

I coated the rest of my exposed skin in sunscreen, grabbed my camera and jumped into one of the 4X4s waiting to take us across the desert.

Speeding across the Sahara

Speeding across the Sahara

We stopped within a few minutes at a small building where we were treated to a performance of Gnawa, traditional west-African music performed by an extremely talented group of men dressed all in white and possibly the cutest little boy known to man. We listened and we danced and had a grand time before we were loaded back into the 4X4s.

Singing and dancing in the desert

Singing and dancing in the desert

We speed across an alien landscape of bright orange sand and a few hours later I was in my bathing suit plunging into an ice-cold pool at a fancy hotel at the edge of the dunes. After a bit of a lounge in the sun and a little bit of lunch we changed and set off through rows of palm trees. Then we saw them…our camels.

They were smelly and they grunted a lot. I watched as one hopped awkwardly to its feet and the girl on its back yelled. I was suddenly very nervous. I am intimidated by horses and camels are taller and significantly more awkward looking. I was finally coaxed onto a camel by one of our guides and suddenly jolted into the air.

My knuckles turned white as I gripped the one handhold I had. Eventually I began to grow accustomed to the slightly awkward swaying of my camel and actually began to enjoy myself. About five minutes in I realized camels aren’t as comfortable as one would think. I tried to readjust myself in the saddle and was greeted by a grunt and my camel swung his head around to glare at me. I apologized and finally named my camel, Ornery.

Camel train

Camel train

We rode for about 40 minutes, my body trying, and failing, to match the awkward bobbing and jolting motion of my mighty desert steed. We finally stopped at the base of a giant orange dune. I then realized getting off a camel is much worse then getting on. Especially if your camel’s name is Ornery and refuses to put his hind legs down, leaving you hanging on for dear life, trying not to slide out of your saddle and on to your camels head.

After that scarring experience I was rewarded with a climb up a sand dune…where every step forward sent you sliding a few inches backwards. Once at the top I was allowed to simply sit and take in a Saharan sunset and a panoramic view of smooth orange sand as far as the eye could see. The scene was breathtaking even with the obnoxious guys on ATVs and 4X4s.

My last sunset in the Sahara

My last sunset in the Sahara

We sat there until the sun sank below the horizon then went barreling down the side of the sand dune toward our camels.

We crossed the desert as darkness set in and the stars began to unfold above us. We zigzagged through the twilight towards the flickering lights of our campsite. Flickering only because our generator was not that most reliable of machines. We said our goodbyes to our new smelly camel friends and hobbled back into camp.

Camel rides at sunset

Camel rides at sunset

After dinner and more drumming we pilled up the wood we’d collected on our journey through the mountains and built a fire. While I did wander into the desert a bit I ended my night around the dying embers of the fire under an unpolluted sky glittering with stars I forgot even existed, or maybe had never even seen. I walked back to my tent as the morning call to prayer rang across the dunes.

Posted in Africa, Morocco, Photography, Stories from the Road | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A preview of the Sahara Desert

Here’s a video from my weekend in the Sahara with ISA.

Blog post and pictures coming soon! 

Posted in Africa, Food, Hospitality, Morocco, Start Wandering, Stories from the Road, Transportation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment