After spending time in a couple of Morocco's bustling cities (and running around so many cities in Italy), we were excited to spend several slower-paced days in the desert and the mountains.
Into the Sahara
When we started our four-day Sahara trip, we had been on our "honeymoon" trip for a little over a month, and for some reason, I couldn't seem to shake some lingering anxious strains of thought about possible loose ends at work (yes, the job I left two months ago), job opportunities (hopefully!) when we get back, etc.... unproductive anxiety that needs to be put on hold for the next 5 months. There is a point to this bit of neurotic sharing: a long drive through the desert is extremely therapeutic.
Our destination, the Moroccan section of the massive Sahara Desert, was a long way from where we started in Marrakech: two days of driving 4-5 hours each day, and two days back after just one overnight on the Sahara dunes. This seemed like a lot of travel time given the length of our stay in Morocco, but the Sahara was well worth the wait, and the journey offered more than we expected. We hired a driver/tour guide, Ibrahim, to get us to and from the Sahara via SUV. He stopped at several scenic places along the way, including an ancient kasbah, Ait Ben Haddou, where several movies including Cleopatra and Gladiator were filmed. We stayed in Berber-style guest houses, made cozy with thick adobe walls and lots of Berber rugs and blankets.
The road to the Sahara cuts primarily through desert that looks similar to the scrubby, hilly deserts in southern California, but with a lot of black volcanic rock that causes stretches of what Ibrahim called "black desert." The volcanic rock originates from thick, slow-moving lava that once erupted from the bottom of the sea that covered Morocco thousands of years ago. Now, in the barren stone, there are fossils of ancient sea creatures. At one point we stopped to tour a small roadside quarry that excavates fossilized crustaceans and squids and inlays them into coffee tables and jewelry for tourists to buy. As we drove through the desert listening to Ibrahim's playlist of hypnotic Moroccan bands, Bob Marley, and the occasional Shakira track, my anxious thoughts started to become like those fossils....carefully preserved in the back of my mind to be excavated in 2015 when I restart my professional life. The sun, the rock formations, the newness, and the endless sameness of the desert meditatively worked their way into my whirring brain as we drove along, and for the first time, I stopped feeling like I was on a temporary and possibly undeserved vacation, and started to just live my presently unusual and wonderful life. I am thankful to the black desert for putting me in this state of mind just in time to experience the Saharan dunes.
When we got to the tiny town of Merzouga on the Sahara, suddenly there were wind-sculpted sand dunes for as far as the eye could see. We hopped onto camels with a few other tourists and some Moroccan guides, and ambled into a sea of sand, with the sun setting behind us. Camel riding is not the most comfortable activity, so the hour and half journey felt just long enough. I'm surprised I didn't fall off, as I couldn't stop taking pictures. The endless waves of velvet sand, shapeshifting and changing color in the wind and fading light, were like nothing we'd ever seen. We stayed overnight in the dunes in a semi-permanent camp that featured private sleeping tents with mattresses and lots of blankets, and a dining tent where the guides served tagine for dinner. We befriended a Slovenian couple over dinner who shared the whiskey they'd brought along, and made us want to visit Slovenia. After dinner, the guides brought drums and played and sang for us. We asked one of the guides how they learned the drum rhythms, and he said they taught themselves as children: "Out here, one day is like one year, and you learn the music to pass the time." In the morning, they woke us up at 6:00 AM to see the sunrise. Not being a morning person, seeing the sunrise seldom seems like a worthwhile goal to me, but the Saharan sunrise is not to be missed. The photos speak for themselves. Before visiting the Sahara, I didn't believe it was possible to love a sandscape that is nowhere near an ocean, but I will miss those Saharan dunes forever.
Abrahim drove us straight from the desert to Imlil, a tiny town nestled in the High Atlas mountains, where we said our sad goodbyes. Specifically, he dropped us off on the side of the road, at the entrance to a tiny footpath where we met a man with a donkey who carried our baggage along a narrow dirt trail through the village to our guest house, Douar Samra. The proprietors of Douar Samra are a husband and wife team. The husband is the host/waiter/activities coordinator/bill settler, and his wife manages preparation of breakfast and dinner, served in a colorfully cushioned loft space where all of the house's guests dine together around one large table out of communal tagine pots, occasionally joined by the owners' incredibly fat cat. These hours spent chatting over food and wine were the best part of the arrangement, especially after Simon and I had spent all day every day exclusively with each other for the past six weeks. In particular, we enjoyed great conversations and a few rousing card games with a couple from London, Sally and Andy, whose time at Douar Samra exactly overlapped with ours. The quirkier aspects of Douar Samra included no electricity and scant hot water in the rooms, and the well-intentioned yet comical directness of our host, who always seemed to be scolding us for some inexcusable table manner or choice of day trip. The fireplace in our room, promptly lit each evening, the hot water bottles provided us on the night it snowed (!), and the spot's charm made the experience decidedly positive in spite of the oddities.
It rained steadily during our first full day in Imlil, so we did little beyond taking a taxi to Asni, the next town over, for the sole purpose of using the ATM machine there (there isn't one in tiny Imlil, and Douar Samra is a cash-only establishment). Getting to Asni involved haggling for 20 minutes with several members of a small crowd of taxi drivers in town, who seemed bent on overcharging us. When we'd finally agreed on a price and hopped into a beat-up taxi, a group of local men who were apparently friends of the taxi driver also jostled into the car with us, so suddenly there were four of us sardined in the back seat, and two more plus the driver in the front. Bewildered, we gleaned that our fare was subsidizing this entire party's ride to Asni. Simon protested, which resulted in a slightly reduced fare, and one of our fellow riders moved from the backseat of the car to the hatchback (our protests that we'd rather be squished than have this man risk his safety curled up in the trunk were lost in translation). The round-trip drive, 20 minutes each way along muddy cliffside roads, was not the most pleasant, but we had amazing tagine for lunch in Asni. We spent the rest of that wet day holed up in bed at Douar Samra, planning our December trip to India from beneath many layers of blankets.
The next day, we hired a local guide to take us on a six-hour trek through the High Atlas mountains surrounding Imlil. The previous day's rain had turned to snow that night, and a portion of our hike the next day was spent crunching through a snowy winter wonderland. Experiencing desert sand and mountain snow in the same week felt surreal, but by this point in our journey, we've started to get used to that feeling. Imlil was our last stop in Morocco before flying from Marrakech to Jordan. When our plane lifted off, I felt like we had truly sampled all that Morocco has to offer: vibrant cities, desert, ocean, and mountains.