Morocco: Fez and the Sahara Desert

Morocco is such an interesting mixture of different types of terrain, weather, and customs. I always knew I wanted to visit, and since my study abroad program offered a group trip with all of the busy work that comes with booking a trip already done for me, how could I say no? The plan was to spend six days in the country; 4 of them being predominantly travel-filled. I’ll take this day by day.

Day 1

Our tour group needed to be at the designated meeting point at 4 am. Luckily for my roommate and I, that meeting point was an easy 7-minute walk from our apartment. Something I know from experience is that Seville, between the hours of 2am and 6am, is not the safest place to be walking around. This proved true even on our short walk to the meeting point. We were almost to our destination when a strange man hopped out on the sidewalk in front of us and spread his arms really wide so that it was difficult for us to pass. I was quick and got around him but my poor roommate was still stuck behind him. It looked like the start of a football game. He kept grabbing at her luggage and being a general creep. I was acting like the cliché overly-enthusiastic football mom we all know and “love” from high school sporting events, screaming from the stands at her: “JUST HIT HIM” I yelled while making a punching motion. She was still pretty speechless/motionless from shock that this was an actual thing that was happening, so I started walking towards him, intending to do it myself. He seemed to get the hint and moved on, I assume, to harass the next group of students. Never a dull moment, but “JUST HIT HIM” became a fun inside joke between my roommate and I, so not an entirely wasted 5 minutes of my morning. We hopped on the bus and began our 2 hour journey to Gibraltar, where we would board the ferry and cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Tanger Med, our first stop in Morocco. I kept myself entertained by relistening to Serial season 2, which I had begun last summer but never finished. The production quality is great and it’s super eye-opening and it gives you a glimpse of what our soldiers have to endure on a daily basis while in Afghanistan, but I definitely prefer season one. The whole legal aspect and investigation focus of Season 1 grabs my attention more. Also, Season 1’s theme music is so much better.

From there, we went through lots of passport control and boarded the bus again to make our journey to Fez, where we would spend 2 nights. This took the remainder of the day, so when we arrived at our hotel it was dinner and bedtime. Here is a glimpse of what a 4-star hotel looks like in Morocco. The toilets didn’t work, the water was not drinkable, bottled water cost 25 Dirhams, the wifi was practically nonexistent, and the views were beautiful. None of the above really bothered me (especially not the views!), it would be nice to disconnect for a week or so. I did, albeit very slowly,  start downloading the Serial season 1 podcast using the slow wifi, it took several tries and all night, but after hearing the season 2 theme song, I really wanted to hear the season 1 theme song. Also, Adnaan’s story never gets old for me.

Day 2

Day 2 was the day that we all explored the ancient city of Fez. We were up early, passports on our person, breakfast eaten, and ready to explore. We split into groups of 25 and made our way to the Royal Palace of Fez. The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, stays at the Royal Palace in Fez around 6-8 times per year because he married from Fez. The Palace was modestly pretty on the outside, and our guide said that the inside was far more beautiful. Moroccans, he told us, believe that all of their riches should not be shown off with outside decor. It is seen as bragging in their culture. But, the palace looked pretty nicely decorated from the outside to me – so the inside must be something quite special. IMG_5528IMG_5421IMG_5427

After visiting the Palace, we walked to the Medina. The Medina of Fez is basically an old city within an old city. An UNESCO World Heritage Center, the Medina was founded in the 800s and is the home to the oldest university in the world. Today, there are 500,000 people living within the walls of the Medina. It is very easy to get lost because there are over 9,000 tiny unnamed streets. There are no lights at night, and stray kitties everywhere. The main entrance to the Medina is marked by the “Blue Gate”, which our guide said was the Moroccan equivalent to the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Inside the Medina we toured several shops, stopped for lunch and toured the old university dorms (which students still live in!). That night we saw a local folklore show with performance bands who were very charismatic.

***To be completely honest, the Medina would not have been as good of an experience if I were not in a group that was half men. Despite this, there were some very unsettling interactions like none I have ever experienced before. Even our study abroad program leaders told the women not to go anywhere without at least one man accompanying her. Other large groups that were primarily girls that we talked to in the Medina told us that they had been spat on, touched, and spoken to in a vulgar way constantly, whereas my group it was minimum. So, all this being said, if you’re a lady and you plan to go to the Medina in Fez don’t let these things take you by surprise and take any precautions necessary to make you feel safe so that you can fully appreciate what the Medina has to offer.***

Day 3

Ah, another beloved travel day. This day turned out to be a true “adventure experience”, which I am grateful for. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill bus rides, food stops, bathroom stops and jeep rides. We began the day early (determined not to board bus 2 because bus 2 had the worst leg room of the 4 buses by far). We got lucky and grabbed a decent seat on bus one. My only complaint was that the passenger behind me had a habit of constantly kicking my seat due to the position she put herself in to make herself comfy, and she and her friend spoke very loudly while the rest of the bus was trying to sleep, relax, or take in the scenery. You win some, you lose some. At least I wasn’t on bus 2. Count your blessings, kids. During this bus ride, we rode through the richest part of Morocco and the poorest. The richest part was home to a highly prestigious university, and it looked sort of like Switzerland. There was a small ski lift, cedar forests, street lights, green grass, and clean roads.  We stopped in this area for a bathroom break, but there were no working bathrooms for miles. The cedar forest it was. While beautiful, once inside the cedar forest searching for the perfect tree to hide behind, it became apparent that the cedar forest was relatively nasty. Litter was absolutely everywhere, and it went on for miles. I found this odd, because I couldn’t see a single Moroccan and it looked like someone would have to go very far out of their way to come here. Anyways, we hopped back on the bus and our next “wild stop” for the bathroom was in a flat, desert-like field. Not exactly a cedar forest. Some friends and I found a small cinderblock structure and deemed it suitable. We got back on the buses and headed to the Oasis. It was absolutely beautiful. Imagine the Grand Canyon. Now imagine the Grand Canyon with a lush green paradise running throughout its valleys. We stopped for photos and moved on. IMG_5560IMG_5551IMG_5548Next stop was lunch! We were very ready for this. We stopped at a restaurant very near to the Oasis, we even had to trek through the Oasis to get to the restaurant. I was reminded of trekking through nature in Haiti about 3 years ago because the terrain was very similar. The restaurant we stopped at had working bathrooms and a pool! You had to pay 60 dirhams for the pool, though, so we all just sat and looked at it which is basically the same thing. After lunch, we stopped at a fossil store – the Sahara Desert used to be under water, and there are countless fossils to be found in its dunes. I was reminded of my brother when he was around the age of 8 or 9 and he was obsessed with rocks and fossil-things. If he were still 8 or 9, this would’ve been a cool souvenir for him but seeing as I vowed to survive off of the 200 dirhams I brought for the trip (unprepared was I), I just took photos instead. Sorry P.

Finally, we made it to the jeeps. It was sunset by this time, and our trip organizers told us to make groups of six, grab our things, and get in a jeep. Our jeep driver was nice, and he drove more slowly than the other jeeps. I was a bit disappointed at this – I was ready for 2 hours of bumpy off-roading. It was plenty bumpy, though. We had to stop mid-trip for him to get out to pray, and we took that opportunity to photograph the sunset, which was beautiful.

We got back in the Jeep once our driver had finished praying, and by this time the sun had completely set. It was pitch black outside. I was amazed that he was able to navigate the seemingly identical dunes and rocky roads – it turns out that I was amazed too soon. I noticed that the other jeeps were getting far ahead of us, and soon thereafter I couldn’t see a single headlight or tail light. Our driver pulled over on the side of the rode and started speaking frantically into his phone. We could only understand one word, “Panorama”, and we saw a sign nearby that said “Panorama”. After going through countless possibilities in our heads about why we were in the middle of the desert on the side of the road in the darkness while every other jeep had probably arrived at the campsite ages ago, we settled on the conclusion that our driver was hopelessly lost. We took this half half hour to stretch our legs, not wander too far from the jeep, and to take a picture next to the “Panorama” sign to commemorate our “lost in the middle of the night in the Sahara adventure”.IMG_5580

We got help and arrived to the camp about an hour after everyone else. We were pretty bummed, because we wanted to choose our beds for the night, but all turned out well. The girls’ side of the camp was full, so we found spare beds in the boys’ side with no problem. Dinner wasn’t served until 11 pm or so, and we were very ready to eat and go to sleep after our long day. Side note: washing your face may seem like a twice daily mundane task, but after a long day of adventuring in the desert, a simple face wash and skincare routine with serum and moisturizer does wonders. I hadn’t even realized that several layers of dirt and sand had set up camp on my skin, but wow my face felt incredible after a good scrub. Being in the middle of nowhere really helps you appreciate the little things. I bundled myself in a winter coat, two pairs of socks, thick leggings, and settled into my “bed”. It gets unexpectedly cold at night in the desert, and when I woke up early to see the sunrise, there was more sand on my face! How?! Another excuse to indulge in my skincare regimen, though, so I was happy.

Day 4

The sunrise was beautiful. 6am had never felt so cold, but how many times are you sleeping in the Sahara Desert? The sunrise was a must. And wow, was it beautiful! The sun didn’t peak out over the dunes until around 7:20, but the entire process was stunning, and I didn’t hesitate to take way too many seemingly-identical photos, all of which I will place below, so, you’re welcome:

After the sunrise, we enjoyed some breakfast. I had some yogurt which was a big deal because I haven’t had yogurt since I left the US! I live with a vegan, which I love because we are served delicious and healthy meals galore (no “study-abroad 15” for me – is that a thing?), but it was a taste of home which was great. After getting ready for the day, it was CAMEL TIME! Technically, dromedary time, but they looked similar enough. A series of groans could be heard over the dunes as the camels were brought to the camp. I had no idea they were such vocal beasts. They were super cute! And tall – mounting and dismounting was really fun because of how quickly you went from sitting camel position to standing camel position, and vice-versa. We rode them to a large dune and back which looked way closer than it actually was. Everyone’s “sit-bones” were definitely feeling it about halfway through.

We climbed to the top of the large dune, and it proved to be very challenging. Trying to get to the top of a large, very steep hill of loose sand may SOUND like a piece of cake (to who?!), but trust me – it was difficult. Many members of our group couldn’t even make it to the top, which was unfortunate because the view at the top was absolutely amazing! You could see Algeria from the top, a ‘short’ 50-kilometer walk from the camp. Atop the large dune were local Berber boys, around 6-11 years old (though you wouldn’t be able to tell by how grabby they were with the girls. It made me sad, to be honest, for kids so young to act so entitled when it came to women. “No” was not an option for them. They even surrounded my friend at the camp, robbed her, and kept touching her very inappropriately. I have never actually wanted to hit a child, but wow. Some girls in our group actually did push them and hit them because they were going way too far and were acting purely out of self-defense. It was infuriating and saddening that these children are growing up in a culture where this behavior towards women seems perfectly run-of-the-mill and okay. It made me even sadder for the women who deal with this every day with no justice). Before all of this happened though, at the top of the dune they immediately wanted to braid my hair, so I let them. Not a comfortable experience by any means but they were excited nonetheless and hey, free braids. They were actually very good at it. So good in fact, that it took my dear friend Rachel a very long time to untangle the braids – but she was an angel for doing so. Afterwards, a Berber man wanted me to cut a lock of my one of my braids off and give it to him. He seemed pretty offended when I said no, and got pretty pushy. Listen bro, a) it’s my hair, b) it’s creepy that you want it, c) if I cut a piece off my hair would be uneven and we can’t have that, d) go away. It was so much fun going back down the dune. Sort of like a big, comfy slide. We boarded the camels and headed to a local town where there was a swimming pool and a shop awaiting us. The whole setup was clearly for tourists, but the chilly pool felt really refreshing after we had been in the sun all day.

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Our group left the pool, did the obligatory shop-stop, and walked for almost an hour back to the campsite for a late lunch. The sand was very hot, and some of the guys didn’t wear shoes (?). I felt sorry for them but I don’t get why they wouldn’t wear shoes on purpose. They hopped-and-stopped all the way back on a piece of cardboard that they would throw down when they couldn’t handle the scalding sand, and the process would go on and on until eventually we made it back to the camp. We had the rest of the day to relax. Merchants and henna artists came to the campsite and some of my friends got henna tattoos. We played cards and talked with the local men who lurked around the edges of the camp at all times. They were harmless and very nice when you were with at least one guy. They would shout “Africaaa!!” at random times, offer to show you their campfires (for tips), offer to sell you drugs (Morocco is a major marijuana producer – obviously I did not partake), try to sell you little souvenirs, and just talk in general. They were always smiling and excited to hang out with us. These men spoke 1-7 different languages, but had never gone to school. They referred to their habit of hanging around the camp as going to “the School of Life”, because tourist groups from all over came here. I thought that was pretty neat, seeing as I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for probably 14 years of my life with breaks in between to focus on Latin in middle school, and I suppose Romanian and Greek as well (though those languages have left my brain as of a while ago due to never using them). I liked this downtime. I got to know new people in my program better and being “off the grid” was relaxing.

Later, we had dinner and a show. The show was a man singing some local songs, and it was interesting for sure. Getting food was an experience. 200 hungry students all dashing to the buffet table at once – elbows were thrown, words were said, what began as passive aggressiveness turned into blatant aggressiveness before my very eyes. It was fascinating to watch. I decided to wait it out and sat until the madness had subsided. Face washed, teeth brushed, and I was asleep in two seconds flat. It had been an exhausting but incredible day.

Day 5

I had woken up a couple of times during the night because it was so cold, but other than that my night was restful and I woke up feeling refreshed. I was one of the last to breakfast because I took my time getting ready and I knew I would have to wait in the line of angry-hungry (hangry, as they say) students and I wanted my morning to begin in a more “chill” way than that. When I got to the breakfast tent there were hardly any people left and I reaped the reward of a relaxing breakfast experience for waiting to eat. We packed up and got to the jeeps. I left some of my puffy pants behind because a) I didn’t like how they smelled from the Medina and the camels, b) they weren’t really my style and I didn’t see myself wearing them, and c) they wouldn’t go to waste if I left them because there is a lot of poverty in the area and I knew someone would wash them and use them. I also need to keep my suitcase under 44 pounds and these pants would’ve been on the chopping block, anyways. I came to Europe with a 48-pound suitcase, but thanks to A CERTAIN AIRLINE (cough Ryanair cough), I need to get it under 44. It shouldn’t be that hard to get to 44 pounds because living out of a suitcase for 4 months causes lots of wear and tear on clothes, I would probably be getting rid of some anyway. Anyways, to get back on track, the jeep I was in made it to the buses without getting lost, which was great. I got my seat on Bus 1 (unfortunately so did the people behind me, but water under the bridge), and enjoyed the view until we got to our hotel in Meknes that evening. There were some stunning views, which I’ll post below. We stopped in the cedar forest again, this time to shop and toa see the monkeys that lived there (the same species as the ones in Gibraltar). The dinner in the Meknes hotel was the best I had had on this trip. After dinner, I showered. It was amazing after not being able to for three days. I played cards with some friends until we got tired and then went to bed. We didn’t get to see the city of Meknes due to timing issues and arriving late in the day, but it looked like a happening place.

Day 6

The next morning, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, and boarded the buses. I got my good seat again on Bus 1 – I couldn’t believe my luck. My seat partner and I have a plan, though. She puts her luggage under the bus and since I only brought a backpack, I make a mad dash for the bus and secure our seats while everyone else waits to store their stuff in the compartment underneath the bus. Let this be a lesson to pack lightly – you get better spots. We got to the port of Tanger Med, and we waited hours and hours to board our ferry. The ferry ride seemed way shorter than the one from Gibraltar to Africa. We passed the time by playing 20 Questions. If you ever need good topics for this game, I have a few: ankle brace, coffee bean, and SCUBA diving. These were winners. You’re welcome. Once back in Europe, everything went very smoothly. We boarded our buses (by some miracle I got our seats on bus 1 again! But guess who else did.) I slept the entire way back to Seville, but before that I got a very high score on Candy Crush, which took about 30 minutes for one level. It was one of those timed levels and I kept getting the “refill your time” candies. Upon arriving in Seville, I realized that Seville felt like home for the first time. It took a while for Charleston to feel like “home” too. Nothing like coming back from Morocco to make another foreign yet slightly more familiar place feel like home. I knew in that moment, in the middle of the night walking back to our apartment, that it would be bittersweet to move on from Seville. We arrived home, collapsed in our beds, and slept very well.

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The port of Tanger Med.

All in all, Morocco was a unique, eye-opening, rewarding, amazing experience. I am so glad I chose to go on this excursion, and I recommend going if you know yourself well enough to know that you can handle “roughing it” and the various cultural differences. Get out of your comfort zone! You won’t regret it!

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One thought on “Morocco: Fez and the Sahara Desert

  1. Amazing writing! You feel like you are experiencing the trip. Also made me laugh out loud in places…..like when the guy wanted to cut off one of your locks of hair and your listed (a) through (d) reasons….:) Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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