The Valley Vagabond: Culture Shock in Morocco – Marrakech and a Luxury Desert Camp (Part 2)

Now that my obsessive overthinking, overplanning, and overpacking were finished, we left for our trip of a lifetime.

We flew from SeaTac to Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris and then to Casablanca. Everything I had read previously taught me to skip Casablanca entirely as it is said to be the least interesting city in Morocco, but it was also the cheapest to fly into, so there we were.

We got in just in time to get to our hotel, have dinner and go to sleep before catching a train to Marrakech. I am the type to want to go directly to sleep when we arrive, and my husband is more of a hit-the-ground-running kind of guy. He won this time, and we ventured out to find food.

This is where, for all my planning, my brain completely glitched out, and I ordered a salad. Fruits and salads can be very tasty in Morocco, but you must ensure they have been peeled, washed, or cooked before consumption. This is to avoid any bacteria you wouldn’t want in your system.

*cue the dramatic music*

I even realized my mistake halfway through my Caesar Salad and stopped eating. Surely, the universe wouldn’t do that to me on my first day. Technically, it didn’t; it was after midnight before I became the Exorcist. While I won’t bore you with the gory details, my mistake followed me on the train and for our first two days in Marrakech.

Our first of two Riads was the Riad Casa de Marrakech Guest House, conveniently situated at the beginning of the medina in a working-class area where you can get the real feel of the locals and their businesses. Unlike most Western hotels, it feels like staying at a friend’s house. Warning! If you aren’t a fan of rock-hard beds, Morocco may not be the place for you.

Fortunately, Mark is great at exploring alone so while I lay in bed taking small sips of (bottled) water. He ventured out on his own. On his first day, he wandered through the streets of the Medina and bought many things we didn’t need but were fun to haggle for: a little Genie Lantern, a woven coat that looks like it was worn by a 70’s rocker and a LARGE ornate brass lamp that we had to lug around for the next 15 days.

You see, you MUST haggle in the busy souk (marketplace). Haggling is an integral part of the culture in Morocco. It is a back-and-forth dance between the merchant and the potential customer that may or may not involve mint tea. I’m not sure we mastered the art and likely paid more than we needed to, but it was fun all the same.

Every time I tried to join in the exploring, it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t until he had his picture taken with a cobra that I got REALLY jealous and willed myself better to manage one day of sightseeing in Marrakech.

I had heard getting lost in the souks is part of the fun, but my techie husband had a large map on his tablet that every local wanted to see. Good thing, too; if you do get lost and ask for help, you may have to pay for that help. As I did in Fes. More on that later.

You must stay alert as the narrow alleyways are full of bikes, motorcycles, and donkey-pulled carts with no obvious fear of running down a nauseous Washingtonian. The sights and smells were overwhelming, and I was glad to finally pop out into the open air of Jemaa el Fna Square.

Knowing I was overwhelmed, Mark suggested we go to a rooftop deck and observe for a while rather than participate in the pandemonium. There were ladies trying very hard to henna the hands of every woman walking past, monkeys, cobras, men in sparkly hats and robes dancing, motorcycles, teens doing soccer tricks for coins, music, fruit vendors chanting in unison, and drums.

Mark described the cacophony perfectly. He said it was like Christmas when one child gets a plastic flute and the other gets a drum and they run in circles screaming and playing their instruments. Fun at first but eventually exhausting.

We returned to our room to rest before having dinner with Sarah, a fellow Riad dweller who just so happened to grow up in Mobile, Alabama, just like my husband. While we waited for her high above the Medina in a balconied restaurant, three young men in their twenties told us, “We hope we have the energy for this trip when we’re your age.” They’re lucky they didn’t get pushed to the dirt below.

The next morning, we said farewell to Sarah, who was off to climb Mount Toubkal and got into our car for a nine-hour drive to our next destination, a luxury desert camp.  

There is a patch of desert closer to Marrakech than what I chose. The Agafay desert is located about 30 kilometers from Marrakech, but I knew my significant other wanted to see the Atlas Mountains, so I chose the longer journey.

We were picked up early in the morning by our driver, Hamid, who did a fantastic job explaining everything we saw and knowing exactly when we needed to take a break. We passed through Ouarzazate, a city known as a filmmaking location for such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gladiator, and some of Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones set

There were many other small cities and villages along the way, and after leaving the road for some sandy off-roading, we arrived at our desert camp, the Kam Kam Dunes. It was dark and cold when we arrived, but we were led down a brightly lit solar-powered pathway covered in rugs to our black tent.

These are “Unique tents placed in the middle of the desert. They are haimas, typical nomadic tents made of organic dromedary leather and handmade by local artisans.” We dropped our bags and went to the restaurant tent for a lovely traditional meal.

I was tired and returned to the tent, but Mark and the other guests were treated to a night of music under the stars (you could see the Milky Way!) We slept like rocks and awoke the next morning for an adventurous day.

We visited with Berber Nomads and got to see how they lived. Then we drove on to the village of Khamlia Gnawa. For centuries black Africans from the Gnawa tribe, originating from sub-Saharan countries such as Sudan, Mali, and Niger, were forcibly moved from their homelands across the Sahara to Morocco as part of the worldwide slave trade. Shackled in chains as they crossed the desert, they sang to soothe and found mindfulness in the rhythmic chanting and clanking of the chains.

Today, the Khamlia village inhabitants in the Moroccan Sahara are direct descendants of these slaves.[1] We were treated to a performance of the music that soothed them as they were taken to slavery far from home.

We toured a desert oasis and learned how they work and, lastly, drove quads in the golden dunes of the Erg Chebbi. See, I had no intention of doing this; I am a low-risk kind of person. I was going to ride a camel, but dang, those things are BIG. So, I chose the quad and was not so good at steering. I got to the top of the dunes and let the guide and my husband roar on while I sat listening to the silence.

We slept well that night, knowing the next day we’d be on our way to our next stop, Fes.

Stayed tuned for Part 3- Fes, Chefchaouen and Tangier

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[1] Khamlia Gnawa – A Little Desert Village with a Big Story – So Morocco

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