sahara desert

PERSPECTIVE

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So we made it to the sand dunes, the long awaited part of our journey to the Sahara Desert. Funny because when tour guides try and convince you to shorten your stay, it's usually a sign they're onto something and less concerned about making a sale. A three-day trek on camels throughout the desert from one nomad camp to another sounded completely surreal. But when multiple outfits suggested at the most two nights, we gave in and went for the one night desert camp out and two nights elsewhere along the way to various other attractions, to round out a three day tour. We were determined to see it all. Now enter our colorful and outspoken driver and guide, Driss. Upon first meeting we of course late in our departure and his irritation (American's and their lagging), it began with a haggle about pricing, days and itinerary. I was a little turned off, as it felt like we were paying the same for two nights as for three, and we were confused on what exactly we were doing. Silly me, guess I relapsed on the fact that everything in Morocco is negotiable, from spa treatments to a loaf of bread, so it's merely a formality to bargain and meet around the middle. Needless to say after we relaxed into our comfortable mini-van listening to an Arabic version of "Gangnam Style," stopping regularly for espresso and bathroom breaks, we all got along famously.

Probably somewhere on most people's "bucket list" is to ride a camel into the sunset to some vast desert landscape. At least it was lodged somewhere on mine, not really knowing when, where, or how exactly but it was on there. Mounting the camel and slowly meandering into the sweltering heat - at 7pm - was a feeling like nothing else. Almost as if on a movie set for a cheesy Arabian film, an image i've only seen onscreen or in other people's photos from trips to the Pyramids. Couldn't stop taking pictures of all the classic shots; camel shadows stretched along the dunes, the #selfie (instagram reference) like hey! i'm on a camel! The views were beyond stunning, and with the golden sunset it was dreamlike.

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Lucky for us it was a full moon. Never have i seen a moon rise over a sand dune, and it actually looked more like the sun - it was unbelievable! After our typical Moroccan meal (couldn't even look at another 'tagine' after awhile), drum, singing, and shisha session we hoofed it up the ridge to get a closer look. Not until well after midnight did we retire to sleep outside under the *full moon.* Sunrise came early, and again we hiked up the dune to experience yet another unique encounter with the sun. Barely 8:30am, luckily we were almost back to our starting point at the edge of the desert, and it was scorching. How people live in that climate I have no idea, and no wonder one night is recommended. So all of you wanting to check this experience off your list, I urge you to do a single night and it will be more than satisfying.

Unfortunately the rest of the tour wasn't too memorable, for me anyway. Coupled with mild food poisoning and the back pain, i was horizontal in the van a good portion of the time hoping for a cool breeze and the headache to go away. The saving grace was Driss, who has a keen sense of humor and did everything he could to help ease our woes as we each were struck with the queasy unsettling bouts of an unsettled stomach. Surely par for the course in Morocco, but what a drag. We did have some great times and Driss posted pics on Facebook, but I could sense his relief as he dumped us off in Marrakech after four long days on the road.

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Hustle- bustle, crazy, hectic, chaos - these are just a few ways to describe the city of Marrakech. It's amazing. Oh, and tourists - so many of them! I kept imagining stepping off the plane and right into this maniac of a city, thinking this is what all of Morocco is like. Luckily for us our jaunt began in the quaint 'blue city' far far away from this place and we were thankful to have ended here rather than began. Imagine a giant plaza with snake charmers, guys with diaper wearing monkey's doing tricks, drum circles, ladies (chasing you) with henna, restaurants with fierce salesmen out front, relentless merchants (yelling at you), orange juice carts everywhere with the same product for the same price, and massive fruit and nut displays. Add thousands of people going in all directions any time of day and oppressive heat, there you have a basic sketch of Marrakech.

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Hundreds of venders lined the plaza and went on forever twisting around in narrow corridors, never-ending and selling everything you can imagine. Getting lost is what you do there, for fun. Good luck buying something and finding that shop again for a return or a fix. My most exciting moments were in discovering a new section of the medina, like the dying quarters where all wool, fabric, scarves, etc. are hand dyed with natural pigments. Men with permanently dyed red arms and hands stood above boiling liquid and posed for pictures. And then the leather tannery. You need a "Moroccan" gas mask for your nose (aka mint leaves) just to breathe for the stench of the ingredients used to treat the animal skins is overwhelmingly pungent and burns your eyes. The metal workers section, welders hovered over their works of art in tiny dark spaces were covered in dirt and grease. Scariest and most 'twilight zone' of them all, was the section that sold animals. Curious as to what the smell was and why the eery feeling as we stumbled through the 'gates,' we saw dead and live animals for sale. Men here were covered in blood from head to toe, shoved and sharing a a small stall with a hundred live chickens, and several rabbits and pigeons in cages. Other men in stalls were de-feathering chickens using a horrible machine, it's one of those places where you swear off eating meat all together. On an upside, these animals are fairly 'free range' and this system seems more farm to table style in comparison to gross scale of factory farming. All how you put it in perspective, i guess.

Lots has transpired in the last weeks in Morocco until now, as I'm sitting in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Barcelona, Spain. (thank you new friends, Shayne and Kristen!) The week here has been a bit relaxing, as I'm still in healing mode but trying to get out and about to take in the sights - most importantly the beach. What a fantastic city! Even if it's covered with Gaudi architecture :)

Something terrible has also happened recently, my young and vibrant aunt Erin is in the ICU for bleeding in her brain and was in a coma for several days. Yesterday she opened her eyes. Heavily drugged and sedated, doctors still aren't clear on what's happening but she is responding and making progress. We're all in shock, and i feel really far away. On that note it's approaching the five month marker, and I've recently been planning my trip home for the end of June.

Nothing like a sudden and serious health scare to put your own life in perspective. Again a reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is, but also how incredibly powerful we are to create the life we want. Which brings me to the question, how do i incorporate travel (taking pictures, video, writing and telling stories) and get paid?

BTW, my comp is totally dead and for real this time. Not a terrible thing overall (may be last blog entry for awhile), but now having to lug the useless metal corpse around it could affect my luggage weight limit, damn these budget European airlines.

Tomorrow I fly solo to my (possible) final destination - Crete, Greece.

Random Travel Tip: For the first time ever I didn't have a flight scheduled out of Marrakech until the day before. As freeing and exciting as it can feel, prices and options literally change and go up in a matter of seconds. I recently was introduced to this highly addictive and amazing app, Skyscanner. Late on the game i'm sure, but it gives you cheap flights to "everywhere" instantly. Planning ahead can take up a ridiculous amount of time, but just getting an idea of available flights and prices a little early on, can save you a lot of time and money. I wish it were the opposite and prices went down as you waited, until the very last possible minute. For all us spontaneously bad planning folks out there.

THE LABYRINTH

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Pulled the trigger and decided to leave the comfort of our nest in Chefchaouen, Morocco after 10 days. It had been rainy and cold for more than half that time, and slowing way down because of the injury I’d barely seen the light of day for a week.

Our last evening and final attempt to ransack the shops we’d been scouting for must-haves, clouds parted and the sun finally peeked out. Feeling a bit better and determined to enjoy the warmth, I managed to collect a decent variety of Moroccan gear. Included and of total surprise (as a usual non-rug lover), was a fairly large 25 yr. old “Berber” rug – made by the indigenous people of Morocco who live in the Rif or Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert. All other Moroccan people are descendants of Arabs coming from Spain or Saudi Arabia. I think this is why Morocco is so unique, among the many things, is the blending of African and Middle Eastern cultures and Islam which connects them all.

Next up, the Imperial city of Fes. Nothing compares to the narrow passageways, which create the labyrinth of Fes's medina. With walls so high and thick, it almost gives the feeling that nothing exists outside its matrix and in some places the sun can barely creep through. Luckily, our Riad or home was just steps away from one of the liveliest areas of the medina, the "blue gates." Amongst the many cafés and restaurants, a food market showcasing local fare – camel thighs suspended from large hooks, live chickens and pigeons, live turtles, cubed beef chunks suspended in thick fat (a typical breakfast), goat heads, and every part of an animal neatly displayed. Not for the faint of heart, but an authentic version of local delicacies and cuisine. We haven't quite ventured into those realms, just yet.

Ready for a girls night out, Jasmine and I headed in anticipation for the hammam we'd heard so much about. After paying around $1 for entry, we curiously poked our heads through the creaky doors and were instantly hit with the heavy smell of a sauna or sweaty locker room in need of sterilization. Woman sat topless scattered about in a tiled room filled with buckets of water, scrubbing themselves and then each other. We smiled, acknowledging that we had entered into the locals’ domain where there would be no thrills or fluff involved in this experience. Dollar or two more for an olive oil paste and hand scrubber, a nod yes for a 'massage,' we were directed to the steamy room and greeted with inquiring glances. A woman grabbed me by the arm leading towards yet another room, this one thick with heat intensely radiating from the floor and walls. She motioned for us to scrub ourselves and thinking we were left to our own devices, it made sense why it was so cheap, assuming it was self-service - and what a bonding moment for sure.

Water pooled in two large basins, one practically boiling and the other ice cold. We watched as women continually came in and out grabbing buckets of either variety and we tried to follow suit. Just when we thought it time to rinse off and go on our way - maybe try out a more 'spa-esque' hammam - we were greeted again, this time for massage. Seeing your friend getting scrubbed from head to toe with such force it’s hard not to laugh or feel bad for them. Definitely a cross between painful and pleasurable, it was quite an experience and pleased to have happened on the more gritty locals’ version. Mothers delivered the harsh scrubbing while their children squirmed uncomfortably, and babies cried. Feeling for a little girl on the verge of tears, I thought one day she’d deliver the same fierce scrubs to her children.

Slightly elated and a bit refreshed, I joked about wanting a glass of wine. Something we hadn't had for weeks, and for the first time it sounded appealing. On our way home we were ambushed by a guy in bright orange with a huge turban. "Welcome, welcome, come check out our terrace," something everyone with a restaurant says, "We have wine…" And so it began, a glass of wine in a Berber tent on the terrace turned into our most eventful night in Morocco. Live music with drums and a snake charmer flute, dancing, singing, shisha, and more wine. We even got to play dress up, each given Berber outfits in neon colors (think mumu) and scarfs to match, we were quite the spectacle.

Feeling we had barely scratched the surface of Fes' labyrinth and leaving the next day, Jasmine and I set out to see some notable attractions, most importantly the largest leather tannery. Not ten minutes into our mission we walked alongside a young man whose father happened to work at the tannery, and was actually on his way there now. Perfect, because there's no way we could successfully navigate there even with the map. First, he said, we would stop quickly at a Berber house to say hello, that kind of thing. A little confused and not entirely keen on the idea, we stopped in front of what looked like a rug store. Just then a few men ran past holding huge platters of couscous, and it was Friday the day of rest, where traditionally every family eats couscous. Stomachs growling, we both agreed on finding some after our short visit.

Clearly walking into a rug store, we reluctantly entered inside to find several men hovered over a communal platter of couscous surrounded by several other little dishes. Practically forcing us to sit down and eat with them, we awkwardly accepted and picked up a spoon. It's customary in their culture to always offer something, usually it's what they call "Moroccan whiskey" or mint tea with a hefty dose of sugar (also contributing to their notoriously bad teeth). After such hospitality and really delicious food, I felt obligated to ask about one of the many rugs on display, even though I had the scoop already from my previous purchase. "We don't talk about that now, we eat, no discussing business, and we're not leaving until you both finish this entire thing." We did our best, and thinking we could graciously ease our way out of there after tea, the official 'tour' began.

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Several hours and cups of tea later, after seeing every old, distressed, and faded rug they had I fell in love with a couple more pieces and my friend shook hands on some too. Even involved a friend back home in the fun, she picked up two antique stunners as well. Obviously they're professionals and this is what they do but the hard sales process - if you're open to it and like what they’re offering - can be an enjoyable experience. Bargaining is a key element of Moroccan culture, and actually an insult if you don't try. Funny because on many occasions I’ve been called “Berber,” and told I have Berber eyes. After asking around what that really meant, the response was they’re strong and hard bargainers. Well, no wonder I love this place.

Until next time, from the Sahara sand dunes…

After thought: Great and unexpected experiences usually come about by saying “yes.” I think this is the best part of traveling, so many things coming your way that you constantly get to choose yes or no. (Wish I had said ‘no’ to that omelet which I think gave me food poisoning :P)