Facing East – A Moroccan Experience

It was a picture I had seen hundreds of times over….maybe in something like National Geographic…two little girls, one dressed in bright, hot pink, kneeling on a rocky hillside in the middle of the desert. It was the middle of nowhere to me, but somewhere to them. They were kneeling on these hard rocks, facing east, bowing their heads towards Mecca. No more than 5 or 6 years old.

It was a brief instant that I saw them, we drove past them doing 120 km/hr…but it is an image that is burned into my memory, an image that truly represented our entire time in Morocco.

From the moment we landed in country, it was this bizarre mix of extremes…from extraordinarily beautiful coastline to the insanity and chaos of Djemma El Fna and Marrakech to the peace and quiet of the Sahara. West meets East and everything in between.

I’ll admit it…I was nervous to visit a predominately Muslin country, however moderate it is, I was totally overwhelmed and very on my guard at first. Travel takes you outside of your comfort bubble; outside of all things familiar and smack dab in the middle of somebody else’s world. Morocco was unlike any world we have been to…such extremes of chaos and peace, cleanliness and filth, loud to quiet.

We were driving through the Sahara, listening to an Arabic song…I don’t know what they were saying or what the song was about, it didn’t matter…that moment I was just THERE, in the middle of the Sahara…no thoughts of the past, future, no thoughts of work, of worrying about money, war, bills…just of being there.

It’s not very often Western minds can simply shut off and just be in the moment. We are always worried about a future we have little control over or a past that has already happened…but never really be in the moment we are in. Morocco is such a sensory overload, we really had no other choice other than just being there.

Our trip began in Essaouira, a quiet town on the ocean and inspiration for Jimmi Hendrick’s song Castles Made of Sand. One look at the coastline of this town and I could see why he was inspired to write a song about this place. A small village with endless side alleyways no car can drive down, a coastline littered with rocky outcrops, waves crashing and this fascinating culture. It was the perfect way to decompress from our 7 hour flight from JFK.

Essaouira

And then we arrived in Marrakech…

As we drove into the city, our driver commented on how quiet it was that day since it was Sunday. If that was a slow and quiet day, I wondered what busy was…cars were flying around everywhere, with little to no regard for traffic lights or lanes, motor bikes zipped through the cars with even less regard, donkey carts also were in the mix…what traffic jam would be complete without a few donkey carts?? On top of that, the pedestrians were blindly walking in front of all of them. This wasn’t a busy day??

We arrived at our Riad and were pleasantly surprised, our host, Julio, was a native of Chile, where we had just visited a few months back. The literal translation of Riad is walled or inside garden…much like a courtyard in the middle of the home. It was simple and beautiful. Julio’s home was built in, what we found out, the most prestigious and oldest part of Marrakech, adjacent to the king’s palace…not a bad location.

As we usually do, we hit the ground running and went directly to Djemma El Fna. Originally a square where public executions were held, it was very much alive and bustling now. About three seconds after stepping into the square, we (more specifically Ray) were accosted by the infamous snake charmers…throwing snakes around his neck and shoving a cobra in our faces. It was as if we had a sign above our heads, “HI! I’m a tourist, I’m new here and I’m ready for you to try to rip me off!” 100 Dirham and an aggressive bartering session later, we were on our way to the souks (markets).

My written words, no matter how descriptive or how long I go on about this place, will ever give you any indication of Djemma El Fna. The smells, the sites, the sounds, the people, the colors, the shops, the animals, it all comes at you at about a million miles per hour and there is just no rationale way for your brain to take it all in and process what you are experiencing. It is sensory overload in overdrive, much like being stuck in a massive kaleidescope and being spun around FAST.

After two days of walking through the souks, and getting lost in the souks, visiting the square, some of the historic sites like the Saadian Tombs, and Koran School and enjoying some of the best food Marrakech has to offer, we were on our way to the Sahara. THE desert.

I won’t bore you with the gory details of our flight home being canceled or complications with our itinerary and project at work erupting while I’m about a billion miles away…just know it added a bit more chaos to the insanity of it all and we were very grateful to even be going to the desert at all.

That was, until, I met the Moroccan Mario Andretti. Moroccan Mario, our driver, who must have driven this 4-hour winding highway through the passes of the High Atlas Mountains hundreds of times, seemed to be trying to break the land speed record to reach Ouarzazatte, or maybe he just got his kicks from seeing the American girl in his back seat’s eyes bug out of her head and white knuckle the seat. Whatever his mission in life, I nearly threw up twice during the drive, even Ray was getting a little car sick and, for those of you that know Ray, that says a LOT about the drive. I considered finding Allah during this time…

At some point, I do remember Ray talking about some guys who had BASE jumped in Morocco and how cool that would be…this, as Moroccan Mario is taking dead man’s curve at about 85 MPH…yeah, sure, BASE jump…we NEED more excitement on this trip…why not…

Thankfully, we had a scheduled stop at Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, an 11th century Kasbah situated in Souss-Massa-Draâ, across the Ouarzazatte River from where we arrived. Now, when I hear 11th century, I think, “WOW..that’s really old.” Then, it’s put into perspective for me…that’s 9 HUNDRED years old, this structure is made from mud, primarily, and some wood; a maze of intricate walkways and rooms, it’s simply amazing this was built so long ago, still standing and in such good shape that some of the nomadic Berber people still LIVE there.

I forgot to mention probably the best part of this visit…being as this was across the river, it required a 20 Dirham donkey ride across to get to it. When I asked the donkey driver if we would have a return trip for the 20 Dirham, he responded, “Enshala…” God willing. Lucky for us, God willed it so, and we were able to get back to Moroccan Mario and our guide and head on to Ouarzazatte.

After finally arriving in Ouarzazatte and meeting up with our new traveling companions for the next two days, Jared and Lenny, a hilarious Australian couple that was spending some time in London and came to Morocco for a quick trip. After struggling with my poor French and the rest of the country’s broken English, it was a relief to share a few laughs in our native tongue.

We arrived in M’Hamid around dinner time, after a long 8 hour drive from Marrakech…we were there, we finally made it to the Sahara.

It was different than I expected…first of all, I had cell phone coverage! In the desert…really, in the middle of nothing, and coverage better than I have at my house in Atlanta . And, there were people…lots and lots of people…living out there.

The moon was nearly full that night, so we didn’t see as many stars as I had hoped for, but they were still intense, like those ceilings you see at museums or restaurants, made of black with pinhole lights to make it look like the night sky. Except this was real…

Our “bivouac” tents were hardly bivy’s at all. We stayed in a hut made of mud and stone, complete with the biggest bugs I had seen in my life. Having two beds in our room, I just assumed that the second one was for them.

5:30 the next morning I was awoken by the call to prayer. It’s eerie and calming all at the same time. Five times per day, the call to prayer is “broadcast” from all of the local mosques, calling all to come and pray, facing east to Mecca.

Maybe Ray and I should have joined in that morning and asked Allah for nice camels…

We knew somebody was going to get a bum camel…Ray pulled that lucky straw. His camel was a little thirsty and not really digging the idea of giving some American a ride into the desert rather than having a sip of water. Can’t say that I blame him one bit. After a lot of prodding, some pulling and slapping with a small branch, an hour later we had arrived where the 4×4 would pick us up. We were originally scheduled for a 4 hour ride…after an hour…I was quite happy that our trip was shortened…so was my butt.

Driving in our 4×4 now…the landscape started morphing from rocky desert to more sandy. Then, rising over the horizon like pyraminds, there was the dunes of Erg Zhigaga.

Who would have known that massive piles of wind swept sand could be so magical, awe inspiring and amazing. There was that feeling I had been waiting for on this trip…that feeling of blissful insignificance. Knowing that there are things out there in the world so much more simple yet amazing than what we experience on a day to day basis.

As my mind wandered through the sensory overload called Morocco, I thought about those two little girls and how that image was so burned into my mind.

I’m not religious, don’t even really like kids, and make absolutely no apologies for either. But to see such a blind faith, a faith SO strong, a faith for something greater, that it drove these two little girls who, in any where in the Western world, would be playing with Barbies, to be kneeling on the hard, cold rocks, praying…regardless of my opinion of their religion, it was profound. It made me ponder my own faith and made me think about what I do or don’t believe in.

To most, on a traditional level, I don’t have a faith. But to me, travel is my religion. It’s what I’m made of, what I live for, when I see things greater, better and makes me a stronger and better person. Travel to me, is small clips of time that I can experience the most amazing experiences with my best friend and husband, seeing all I can in this big world in the short time we have been given. Just like those little girls, facing east, to something hopefully better, to a higher power, to a happier place.

Morocco is a crazy place, definitely NOT a place for every person to visit, it’s very easy to see the poverty, the dirtiness, to be scared off by the unfamiliar religion and culture. You just have to take a deep, deep breathe, step out of that bubble with both feet, be completely in the now and take it all in. Let it happen around you and be happy you can visit such an vibrant culture. You’ll walk away with your eyes wide open to a very different part of the world and a very different part of you.

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BUDGET $60 per day

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Top photo by the author, others by: 1, 2, 3

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  • Rabe Cogsil said at 2011-08-14T14:07:56+0000: I was here in 2008. I travelled with my 13 year old daughter as I felt it was so important for her to see the world before coming into high school. I remember searching the internet for blogs, travel advice on this area and came up with nothing. I travelled this area as I call it BLIND. My most wonderful moments came from others guiding us and taking a special moment to show us that they were excited we were visitng their country. We ended up staying in a family's home in Meknes as the father chatted with us on the train from Rabat to Meknes and he was so excited to have his 13 year old dauhter meet mine. She had been studying english for 5 years and wanted to practice. We left there house for the train with a brown bag lunch they packed us and memories of the hospitality of others. When asked, I tell people that I know my generation will never find World Peace, but as a mother it is my job to educate my child on the similarities of the world. We all care about our family, we all have traditions, clothing, foods that we wear and like, and we all can get along. I had hoped that she too will share her wisdom when someone doesn't understand the things they see about someone else's culture. She is a senior in high school now with high aspirations, but most of all she lives an inspired hope of peace for all.