Facebook, Instagram, snapchat, emails, facetime- Just click and scroll. It’s easier to stay in touch online than to meet in person. There’s conflicting schedules. Families. Work. The list can go on forever.
Nevertheless, each year Han, Christina and I plan a few days out of the year to see each other. Our bond stays the same but a few white hairs and crows feet remind us that time is drifting by.
This year we plan to meet closer to my residence in the Canary Islands. Morocco. Just a few hours away from me. After many emails and one complicated online skype call later, we all book tickets to Morocco.
Morocco – Marrakech
Being lazy I use tripadvisor to give me “the top Private Tours in Marrakech”. I send out a few emails stating our travel dates and request for personalized recommendations that include a medina market tour, the Sahara Desert, and a camel ride.
After reading all the submissions from different tour companies, we choose a smaller starter company for $500/ pp for a 4-night tour – complete with a camel ride in the Sahara.
Menara Airport – RAK
First impressions- upon arrival, I hand my USA passport to the immigration guard.
Guard: Where you from?
Guard: No, where are you from?
Me: Canary Islands.
Guard: No, where are YOU from?
Me: I don’t understand.
Me: Me? No, I’ve never been.
Guard: Then where?
Me: What? Huh?
“She’s Chinese!”- Han yells from the other line.
At first I thought the officer thought my passport was fake, questioning my nationality. Oh, yes, my face is from China. My ethnicity is Chinese.
This troubles me. If there’s one person in the world that doesn’t need to ask the cliché “You Chinese?” question, it’s the immigration officer holding my American passport. I take a deep breath and sigh. Different cultures will never understand the Asian American identity quandary. Han tells me not to be offended and I try to let the irritation fade away.
Staying in the Medina
We meet our tour guide right outside the airport holding a “Wang” sign. A very enthusiastic young man named Nourrdine. He gifts us with a bouquet of roses and welcomes us to the Morocco. Nourrdine has arranged for us to stay in a riad within the old city for two nights. We learn that a riad is an upper-class house that includes multiple levels, high ceilings and a courtyard in the middle. Our riad is beautifully decorated with Moroccan tapestry and cushions. We check in and drink some Moroccan mint tea. We relax on bright-pink, purple and blue cushions and watch the small fountain in the middle of the riad. It’s vacation time with my besties from second grade.
Dinner– Chez Ali
Resting in the afternoon, we head out of our riad just after dark. Our guide arranges for us to attend a performance dinner at Chez Ali. A large arena / park about 30 minutes outside of the city center. The park, designed for thousands of tourists, appears baron and deserted. The parking lot is empty except for a few cars and buses. We enter the park by walking through a procession of Moroccan horseman. As we pass by each soldier raises his swords to form an archway over us. We walk into a large courtyard with some fountains, traditionally dressed Moroccan women, and a somewhat out of place giant cobra figurine.
A man standing on the terrace starts to play his flute. Two beautiful Moroccan brides come to us to pose for photos. Our guide takes us to each photo stop and poses at each different exhibition. Smile. Christina chuckles that this is the most group photos we’ve ever taken.
As we walk towards the dining hall, there are tents set up with differently dressed groups of singing and dancing people. Each group represents a different cultural area of Morocco. Reminding me of Disney’s “It’s a small world” ride, the dancers start dancing and singing as we walk into view. Once out of view, the workers stop, stand around and look bored. We try to show our appreciation of their efforts by taking photos and smiling.
The Largest Feast Ever
Dinner is served in a large outdoor tented area. Despite only being a small group of 3, our waiter arrives with the largest Tajine platter we’ve ever seen. Probably at least 4 lbs of meat in the dish and enough to serve 10 people. We eat as much as possible but the dish still looks full. We debate about taking leftovers, but the waiter swoops in and replaces the tajine with the next course before we could say anything.
After dinner, we walk to the outdoor field to watch the horse show. There are dancing, horseman acrobatics, and galloping routines. The Finale ends with the horseman firing a bunch of loud gun shots in the air. Cold and Tired, we head back to our riad. The experience gives us mixed feelings. We want to like it because we see that it gives jobs to the locals. However, the emptiness of it all feels too fake and forced. Perhaps the park is fun during high season.
Private Guided tour of the Medina
Early the next day we explore the old city in Marrakech. Our guide today is a well-dressed older man. He starts off telling us about the architecture and culture of the Moroccan people. Since it’s early we are some of the first visitors of the day to the Saadian Tombs. A high wall divides the cemetery from the adjoining mosque. We learn that this entire area was once hidden by sand and dirt. During the time of war, the government buried the cemetery for protection. Years passed by and people forgot about the site. It wasn’t until recently that the government was alerted to a possible tomb within the mosque garden, that the site was excavated. This divider was created so non-Muslims could visit this area. While not actually in a mosque, it still gave us an idea of the architecture and design of what the rest of the religious temple may look like.
Within the site, each grave is marked by intricate mosaic designs. In a tomb of gold painted ceiling and columns, all of the King’s male descendants are buried together. In the adjoining room – slightly less elaborate – the queen and her female descendants are buried together. We see that most of the Moroccan historical sites separate women’s and men’s areas.
We can see this is still culturally present in Marrakech today. As we pass by coffee houses, we see men relaxing and smoking in front, but never women. When questioned, our guide explains that women do go to coffee houses, but usually sit in the back. If they are in the front area they are usually invited by another male family member. Times are changing, but customs are still observed. He says nowadays that women are going to school and work, but they still observe the male dominant culture.
The highlight of the day – the Old Market Tour
In the center of the market there’s a cobra’s head poking out of a basket. A man hypnotizing the snake with his flute. Bins of spices, vegetables, and fruits brighten the area. We taste some fresh mint and a different, butter-battered and cured meat. Overwhelmed by all the trinkets and souvenirs, we are reluctant to buy anything. Only after our guide brings us to specific shops do we jump in and buy some goods. At one of the shops, a woman shows us how Argan oil is made. She shows us how to tell the difference between the good and fake stuff; “Look for that ECO sticker and actual percentages of ingredients.” Trusting our guide, we buy some Argan oil, saffron and other spices.
Even before going to Morocco, I knew the shopping in the old city would be full of scams. I just didn’t know I could be a victim. Me? The seasoned traveler? Here’s how it happened.
Throughout the day, we get to know our guide and start to trust him as a friend. He’s polite and full of historical and cultural information. As the day progressed we felt this older man was more like an uncle than a paid guide. We knew that he may be getting commission from stores, but we felt that he probably would only bring us to the non-scamming ones. I thought he would tell us beforehand if we needed to negotiate with shop keepers -He didn’t.
Deep down we should have known better. Like anyone else, he’s trying to earn a decent wage for his family. Why wouldn’t he take us to particular stores to earn additional money?
The Rug Store- Chateau des Souks
Our guide takes us inside to meet an owner of the rug store, Chateau des Souks. The owner tells us, there is no pressure to buy, but at this place we can learn about the history of rugs. None of us are really shopping for a rug. We are keen to learn more about the rugs and how they are made.
We walk through the store and see a wall of photos. Famous people and Americans shaking hands with the owner. Look! A photo of Bill Clinton shaking hands with the owner. The man tells us the store works directly with the government of Morocco where Foreign dignitaries pick out rugs and then the government pays a standard price. We learn about the different materials and types or rugs. How women of different villages spend months to make each rug. Our eyes gloss over and each story gives a detail account of the tradition in rug making. What each woman emotionally puts into the rug and designs. Each symbol unique to a Berber village.
The store records each rug maker and its origins. Each rug has a standard government price so there is no negotiating. We learn that if we decide to buy the rug and no longer want to keep it, they will contact one of the many interior designers that want more rugs. They never sell over the phone, and one is only allowed to buy a rug in person. Why don’t they sell over the phone? No idea. Too many credit card scams perhaps?
Each of us are drawn to a different rug. I have my eyes set on a yellow one. Christina buys a baby camel hair rug and Han buys a large one for her living room. We never thought to negotiate. That wall faces of famous people made us feel like we were in a legitimate store.
An hour later, and we are now Moroccan rug owners. We couldn’t stop talking about the rugs. The unique colors. The women. It dominated our lunch conversation. The guide was quite happy to say he also owned a few rugs from the store as well. We were all on cloud nine… beautiful unique handmade rugs from Morocco. “A whole new world! A magical place…(insert song lyrics here)” .
That is, until, we googled the store name. Chateau des Souks
Back at the riad, Han’s on tripadvisor. Disaster. Countless reviews of the store. We should have negotiated. We could have saved 25% off or more on the rugs. Why were we so naïve? We try to calm each other. These are unique designs. It was a good experience. But that scammed feeling doesn’t go away. How could we let ourselves be tricked? Aren’t we smarter than this? Why didn’t we check our phones while at the store?
An hour later, Nourrdine arrives to take us on a horse carriage ride from the old city to the new city. The sun starts setting, and it begins to get chilly. We tuck ourselves in with the blankets in the carriage. The horse trotts along the old cobbled streets while cars zooming around us. This tourist activity is probably over 20 years old and needs to be retired. We would have preferred this horse carriage ride through the garden. Anyway, we appreciate Nourrdine’s effort and enjoy the experience.
Choosing a Restaurant for Foreigners
At the end of the carriage ride, Nourrdine excitedly takes us to a restaurant in the new city area. He tells us that he went for the first-time last week, and was so impressed that he couldn’t wait to take us. We walk in and found ourselves in a lounge. My mouth drops open in shock.
The restaurant was dimly lit with mood lighting and a large screen tv showing football. The customers were all male. Smoke is filling the room. At first I tried to ask for a non-smoking section. Not an option. Then I try to sit outside, but it was too cold. Finally, I concede and we sit a table mid distance between two smokers.
Being overly polite, I try to pretend the smoke doesn’t bother me. The entire dinner I’m trying not to breathe or cough. I try to look normal, but I hate smoke more than any other smell. Each minute in the lounge feels like eternity. Han gives me the “I’m sorry” stare. We eat smokey air pizzas and try to pretend the meal is delicious.
At the end of the meal, I dash outside for some fresh air. My clothes and hair stink. The lingering smoke was smothering me so much so that, when we returned, I ask Nourrdine to tell the hotel security guard not to smoke anywhere near our hotel room. At first Nourddine protests and states there was no smoke or that the guard is probably sleeping. My crankiness emerges. Between the rug and the smoking, I’ve had enough.
I tell him, ” No, there is no smokiness during the day. I can smell it as soon as he arrives. Last night I kept waking up all through the night each time he smoked a cigarette. He lounges right beneath our room and I can smell it.” My voice almost cracking. I can’t take anymore smoking. “Ok” Nourrdine responds. We enter the riad, and he tells the guard my requests. Embarrassed by my rudeness, Han teases me and I admit my faults and blame my old age. Nourrdine wishes us a goodbye and bon voyage on the next part of our journey to the Sahara. We all hug and say good night.
The Long Drive between Marrakech and the Sahara
The next day we wake up early and began our journey to the Sahara dessert. Originally the itinerary approximated an 8-hour drive. Our driver, Nourddine’s cousin, tells us it’s more like 12 hours. I begin to wonder if the camels are worth 12 hours. We try to ask our driver where we are going, but quickly find out he doesn’t speak English. Each time we stop, he says “ok, please walk. I stay here.”
A canyon here. A river there. A mountain top. An ancient ruin. Beautiful sites we didn’t know anything about. At each rest stop, children make little camel and rose figurines out of plant leaves in hopes for some money. With sadness, we try to say no. The thought passes by to give them money, but then do we give them all money? I feel cheap and upset at myself for not helping. Am I helping by giving money? Or if I discourage begging, will they go back to school instead? I want to ask the driver, but have no sign language to explain this complicated question.
Han tells us that she once tried to give kids money in Vietnam, but then more kids swarmed the car, so much so that the car got stuck at a tourist stop and couldn’t leave. She felt even worse.
Why you should speak the Language
Maybe because he wants to show us everything, or maybe we are all being too polite, the journey stretched to 14 hours. We were dying. We wished somehow we could tell him in French or Arabic that we really didn’t care about the tourist sites. We just wanted to get to Merouzuga. Oh the torture.
We had tried to pass the time by reading, taking photos, napping. But after 14 hours, we were at our limits.
Our driver finally sensed our desperation and started to drive faster. He says “Maybe we make it.” Our car whizzes by other slower caravans. Even Christina is disappointed with the schedule slip. We were all passive girls stuck in the back of an SUV. Unable to communicate. Hindsight, I should have requested a private tour with an English speaking driver.
The skies change from light blue to pink and purple. Slowly we see the sun disappear to the west and Sahara appears on the east. We see sandy edged mountain peaks. Then he points and says “See!” A young man with 3 camels in the sand. Hooray!
He turns into the sand, heading bumpily towards the camels and parks nearby. We walk to the camels and take some photos as best as we could with the fading light. The sun has set and its getting cold and windy. Our driver tries to leave, but we don’t understand what’s going on. His limited English prevents us from understanding the next part. Then the young man with the camels tells us he is from the camp and will take us there with these camels. No suitcases please.
We go back to the car and grab some items for our short stay. Once re-packed, we head back, mount our camels and start on our journey. The almost full moon lights up our path. The sand dunes look like burnt lemon meringue pies. I’m smiling and enjoying the peace and quiet. Han in the front, me in the middle and Christina in the back. Our young guide, Mustafa tells us about himself. He’s been working at the camp for a little over a year. He speaks French, English, Arabic and is learning Spanish. The camels are named Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Elvis. The desert is a relaxing and beautiful place. I couldn’t imagine sharing this experience with anyone else. Traveling with Han and Christina is always so easy. We intuitively know what each other wants. We all have the same taste and enjoy the same things. I’m grateful they took the time to fly 30 plus hours to see me on this side of the planet.
“Guys?” Christina squeals.
Then suddenly she lets out a frantic holler for help. I snap out of my thoughts. As I turn back to look, a camel is jumping back and forth. Elvis is trying to buck her off. Poor Christina clutching on the saddle for dear life. Mustafa quickly comes to the rescue and stops Elvis by tying him closely to Bob Marley. Once safe and secure, Christina starts laughing. We look at each other with tears of laughter in our eyes. Poor Christina.
Mustafa goes back to the front of the group, and our trek to the camp site continues.
Han and I laugh while Christina continues to look nervous. Her shoulders tightly shrugged up to her head. Arms flexed and fingers tight around the camel’s saddle handle.
Not too long afterwards, we reach the camp. 8-10 tents in a valley. Our large tent has 4 beds, electric lighting, a sink, shower and a toilet. The camel hide tent is strong and keeps the wind from howling inside.
Mustafa invites us to unpack and then come to the main tent to relax and drink tea.
More Moroccan Mint Tea
The main tent is the main dining area with three picnic benches. A few lounge chairs and colorful decorative pouffs. There are 5 young hosts working at the campsite and one older gentlemen quietly in the back. All the young men are in the their 20’s. Charming socializers. One is playing a guitar, while another chats in Portuguese to some Brazilian guests. We toast each other and drink mint tea. There’s no alcohol at the camp. We snack on some nuts and crackers while talking about our origins to other guests.
Dinner served. First Course – Soup, Second course – Tajine. warm and delicious. Followed by some Couscous. Dessert is a big bowl of fruit with Moroccan tea.
Post Dinner Entertainment
The young men tell us to come outside and sit around a bonfire. The large flames of the bonfire provide warm as embers drift up to the sky each time the wind blows. All the guests sit on small little stools. The hosts grab bongos.
We are surrounded by sand dunes. The sky is brightly lit with the moon and thousands of stars.
The camp fire warms us up. The men singing, chanting, and drumming on the bongos. Some guests sing along, while others sway to the melody.
As the wind blows, a bit of ash and embers jump up. Unluckily for Christina, the embers land on her neck. A bit of frantic arm swinging and Han trying to pat her down, we extinguish the fire. We laugh, poor Christina. First the camel tries to throw her off and now she is almost on fire. She really is the unlucky one of the day. We have a good laugh and the bongos start again. “Bailar?” the hosts ask. Why sure. The hosts help us stand up in the sand and we form a circle. It’s dancing time everyone!
Three boys drumming along, the other two helping us to start dancing. We form a long congo line around the fire. I’m a little excited and have mixed feeling of silliness. The congo starts and we play follow the leader. Every so often the hosts yells for us to follow his dance moves. Now the chicken. Now side to side. Now ride a camel. Point to the stars. Now up and down. Faster. Slower.
Out of breathe, we sit back down into our little stools laughing. The hosts come around and form us into mini circles and to teach us how to play the bongos. Tapping this corner and the middle to form a simple combo beat. 1,2,2,1. 1,2,2,1. 2? No, Start over. 1, 2, 2, 1…. I hit an edge and lose the beat. We all try our bests to become professional bongo players, but let’s face it, we aren’t keeping the temp. Our hosts takes the bongo back and makes it look so easy. Meanwhile, some Brazilians sing acapella.
Slowly one by one, the bonfire group starts to shrink in size as people wandered off to bed. Shortly thereafter, we also decide to end the night. The coldness of the desert starts seeping into our tent. Han and Christina go to sleep with every piece of clothing on. They are frozen to the bone. Somehow the cold doesn’t bother me and I change into my pajamas. Quickly falling asleep.
The Last Day of the Trip
Before sunrise, Mustafa wakes us up and we get ready to depart. On our camels once again, we watch the sunrise over the desert. The sand dunes are smooth with random sharp edges like frosting on a cake. This place is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. The light pinks and purples, emerging over the dunes. I’m so happy to share this moment with Han and Christina.
Soon we reach the edge of the desert and see our driver gain. We say goodbye to the camels and sand, tip Mustafa and jump back in the SUV. Our driver takes us to town where we can shower and eat breakfast. Onward to Casablanca. We are all dreading another 10 hour car ride.
The long journey back to the coast is more or less the same. We leave the desert, drive through the mountains, some small towns and make our way back to civilization.
We see a public bus pass by. The bus is at full capacity with some people hanging off of the doors. The bus dangerously close to tipping over. Cars are zooming between lanes. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought we drove to India.
Finally, we reach our hotel. The city is busy and dirty compared to Marrakech. We notice mostly men enjoying the evening. At the restaurant. At the coffee shops. We do see some women pass by, but only a few, and never solo. Casablanca feels too gritty for our taste.
We go out for our last dinner together and try not to order another tajine if we can help it.We order a whole chicken, some bbq, and French fries. The meal is delicious and over filling. We talk about the desert and look at each other’s photos. Christina has added some fun star wars droids. We chuckle together and talk more about her unfortunate camel and fire experiences.
We head back to the hotel. The rest of the night we spend trying to re-arrange all the souvenirs, rugs, and spices into our luggage. In the morning, Han flies to Portugal and then back to California. Christina to Paris to transfer to Seattle. And finally, I fly back to Tenerife.
It’s not often that I get to see both of my friends at the same time. We all have such different lives. And now we will always have Morocco to talk and laugh about. I still remember when we were 28 years old and zip lining in the jungle in Costa Rica. Now 10 years later, we are riding camels. I love my friends more than words can explain.
Back to Reality
As soon as I arrive back in Tenerife, I begin to miss my friends. I text them,
“When and where are we going to meet next year? Thailand?”