Back when I was studying abroad in Cádiz in 2010, a group of friends and I decided to take a short trip to Morocco. We had heard many mixed reviews about the country, but felt the need to experience it for ourselves. Africa sounded so marvelous and exotic, sure to be filled with adventures and mystique. So we booked our tickets to Marrakech, and didn't think about it much further until we arrived.
Marrakech is not just a lush and exotic oasis, but also a mysterious land of snake charmers, bustling markets, savory tangine chicken and cous cous, pungent spices, ornate mosques, mint tea and intriguing Muslim traditions. Wandering through the stirring markets and the Souk was nothing like anything I've ever experienced. Colorful shops selling decadent tea pots and oriental rugs blend into the creamy apricot buildings, while the shop owners bombard, hassle, and argue with you on the most "democratic price - iz vurry nize, muy bon precio for you!" A myriad of precious tea cups and rainbow scarves enveloped me in a sea of wide-eyed mystery.
Lost on our first day in Marrakech, we encountered a boy named Abdul Ali; a tall and skinny schoolboy, no older than 14. He offered to give us directions to the market, but weary of guided scams, we initially rejected him. He convinced us that he wasn't a guide, but that he worked in a spice shop across from the market, so he could lead us there free of charge. We were too lost to turn him down.
Apprehensive yet hopeful, we followed Abdul through the narrow, winding streets of the city. When we arrived at his family's spice shop, we thought it would be nice to stop in and maybe buy a little something to show our appreciation. We ended up hanging out at the shop for at least an hour, talking, joking, and taking pictures with Abdul and his family. His cousin showed us authentic Moroccan spices, cures and remedies, and generously gave us free treats and gifts. We sniffed sharp black cumin to relieve headaches, doused our bodies in luscious amber perfume, and whiffed decadent curry, saffron and cinnamon. When we finally had to leave, we were remorseful to say goodbye to our new friends.
Within the first minute of entering the market, we were chased by snake charmers and tackled by monkeys. The street performers usually trick the tourists into taking pictures of these exotic sights and then demand money for the pictures afterwards. According to some other friends from our study abroad program, some vendors and street performers might even chase you down until you pay them what they "deserve". After being accosted by one too many snakes and monkeys, we cast away our inhibitions and wandered further into the Souk.
For hours we winded through a labyrinth of shops and aggressive vendors. To avoid being hassled even further, we pretended that we weren't Americans. We only spoke in Spanish to each other, and when the vendors asked us where we were from, we all lied and said we were from Spain. We finally met someone who caught us in our lie - a friendly waiter working in one of the market's restaurants who was wearing an FC Barcelona jersey and claimed to have lived in Spain. After plenty of joking and lively conversation, he convinced us to eat at his stand. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with our new friend and indulging on savory shish kebabs, salads and round loaves of warm bread.
The next day we embarked on an excursion advertised by our hotel, where we were promised a "guided tour in English" to an authentic Moroccan town "two hours away" with the "opportunity to ride camels for only 100 dirham". (Let's be honest: we just wanted to go for the camels.) After a five hour road trip (each way) with absolutely zero camels and a driver who spoke no English, we felt completely robbed and scammed. The silver lining: we got to trek through the wondrous Atlas Mountains, see the lush oases of the Moroccan countryside, and explore the sun drenched city of Ouarzazate.
Our last day in Morocco was both the best and the worst. We finally prepared to embark on our grandest (and most touristy) adventure of them all: camel riding! We ventured to the Palmerie, mounted our camels, and strolled through the lush gardens of palm trees gleaming against blue skies. The golden sunshine generously poured its rays upon our tan shoulders as we rocked back and forth on our camels, until we reached a quaint cottage concealed by the tall grasses. We relished warm flat bread and sipped sweet mint tea inside the hidden villa, ornately filled with colorful lamps, cozy floor cushions and irresistible Moroccan charm. We were overcome with thankfulness for being able to enjoy one of the few things that went smoothly on our trip.High off the thrill of riding camels through the secluded Palmerie of Marrakech, we ventured off to the Souk once more for our last supper. Our entrance to the market was not so warmly welcomed, for we were instantly bombarded by restaurant owners pressuring us to give them our business. When we rejected them, turned off by their vulgar invitations, they cursed at us and told us that we'd "regret making that woman the leader of our group".
We finally sat down at the restaurant that hassled us the least and began to stuff our faces with shish kebabs. As we ate our dinner, groups of tattered women and children came up to us begging for money. When we offered our untouched bread, they refused and explicitly asked for money. We then witnessed a young girl get beaten up by another restaurant owner and a young boy thrown across the market. Watching all of this and knowing we couldn't do anything about it was discouraging and incredibly rattling.
After all that we had just seen, we decided to stop for ice cream in a half-hearted attempt to make ourselves feel better. As we sauntered towards our hotel with our sweet treats, a group of children came up to us, begging for money. Tired and frustrated, we tried to ignore them and keep walking. The children then became violent and started to hit and kick us. One even tried to grab my clutch and run, but thankfully it was attached to my wrist and I was quick to pull my arm away. I never thought I could get beat up by a six-year-old, but I escaped with a throbbing lower back from where one child had punched me particularly hard.
We came back to our hotel emotionally exhausted. After all of the trip's mishaps and epic fails, we only had one goal: get the hell out of Morocco. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for us.
We arrived at the Marrakech airport the next day jaded and anxious to get back to Spain. But thanks to the Icelandic volcano that had recently erupted, all flights back to Europe were cancelled. Reality hit us: we were stranded in Africa. Filled with panic, fear and frustration, we gathered a group of other stragglers and coordinated a road trip to Tangier, where we planned to hop a ferry back to Spain.
We began our nine hour road trip across the Moroccan countryside, passing Casablanca and stopping in Rabat for a gourmet lunch at McDonald's (where they enthusiastically advertised the "McArabia". How appetizing.) Thanks to a plethora of Dramamine and a dead iPod, I zoned out as I watched the country pass before me. All I could think about was being back in Seattle, warm and safe in my own bed. However, reality kept reminding me that I was stranded in a third world country.
After endless hours of barren fields and deserted villages, we finally reached Tangier. We bought our boat tickets with ten minutes to spare and started sprinting towards the port. As we were running to catch our ferry, which we had been told was the last one of the night, I started to have an asthma attack... naturally. Needless to say, we missed the boat. (It ain't easy being wheezy, friends.) Thankfully we had been misinformed, and there was still one last ferry that night. Anxiety pulsed through me as we waited for the last boat.
The rocky ferry ride calmed my nerves as we crossed the Moroccan border towards Spain. We arrived in the sketchy port town of Algeciras around 2:00 am. We were overcome with relief, having finally made it back to Spain. The rest of our night was spent laying on the pavement outside the Algeciras bus station, braving the cold and desperately trying to catch some z's before the first bus back to Cádiz. It was certainly not one of my finer moments in life.
Low and behold, we survived our night on the streets and made it back to Cádiz safely. Okay... so maybe I won't be going back to Marrakech anytime soon. And lesson learned: if a volcano in Iceland decides to erupt, maybe it's best to stay home.
Have you ever gone on a trip where everything went wrong?