Reaching Out 2 The World


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Camel-Backing it Through the Sahara Desert

After a small breakfast our group piled back into the van, everyone squeezing IMG_6388back into their original seats. We had another long day of traveling ahead of us and would be finishing our day with a camel ride into the Sahara Desert!

Like the day before our ride was filled with scenic stops along the road and even a guided tour. Our tour on this day took us through a Berber town where we got the chance to sit down and learn all about the process of rug making. The day was a bit unordinary however because it fell on their holiday. Because of this we received ouIMG_6385r rug lesson from the brother of the women that typically create the rugs. He was incredibly nice and told us that he appreciated the opportunity to practice his English. He also made sure to let us know that it was the women that were able to create all those beautiful rugs and not him. He told me that his skill was jewelry making but that all his supplies were back at his place across town. It’s too he didn’t have any with him because I’m sure he’s great at what he does.

The amount of work and effort that goes into the rugs is incredible and they each tell a story. The meaning behind the rugs is often only known by the creator but if you’re looking to purchase one you can be sure to ask what the symbols mean beforehand. A large rug could take 1-3 weeks to make if they are working at it every day. IMG_6386Seeing the rugs and meeting the locals really makes you think about the whole haggling process. So much time and effort goes into making these custom pieces only to have a complete stranger try to buy it off you for a fraction of the asking price. I understand that they start their prices high in order to still make a profit but I couldn’t help but think that the creators are still getting the short end of the bargain. A few members of our group purchased some small rugs that should make the trips back to their countries fairly easily. I really enjoyed our time in this town and appreciated the hospitality.

IMG_6277When we exited the home we were all shocked to see that the streets were flowing with blood. Today was the day that the animals would be sacrificed in honor of Allah providing Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice rather than his son Ishmael.  When we rounded the next corner to head back to the van we witnessed one of these sacrifices. I apologize if the pictures are too graphic but I felt this was an important part of their culture and not IMG_6275worth leaving out. If it makes you feel any better they use all parts of the sacrificed animal and give 1/3 of the meat to their neighbors and 1/3 of their meat to the needy or less fortunate. It was interesting being able to view the “process” but nice being able to then get in our van and drive away. There are too many parts of a sheep that I’m just not interested in seeing served for dinner.

IMG_6382Our final stop before reaching the Sahara was the mighty Todgha Gorge. Now days there is a small river that runs through this gorge but there must have been a lot more water at one point because these walls tower up to 150 meters on either side of you. It’s a spectacular hike through this canyon and a popular tourist stop on the way to the Sahara. The first thing I noticed upon arriving was the rock climbers midway up this gigantic cliff IMG_6381face. If you squint your eyes you can probably see them in the attached picture. Besides the ridiculous height they were climbing and the sheer drop they faced at any moment, I couldn’t help but think how hot it must be with the desert sun on their backs for the duration of the climb. I suppose they have more urgent concerns at hand though.

IMG_6368Finally, after the longest, most unnecessary stop for lunch (our service was just terrible), we made it to the edge of the Sahara. Our driver told us we were only to bring one bag and that we should be ready to go soon. I guess I wasn’t totally prepared to just bring one bag, as Dan and I had our things sort of mixed together amongst a few bags, but I quickly IMG_6366sorted my things out. Before boarding my camel there was still one last thing I needed to do, I had to get changed into my Sahara Desert garb. When Dan and I met everyone back outside it was easy to see the jealousy on their faces. At least I’d like to think so… because we looked great!

We were each paired up with a camel and each camel was a part of a small caravan of camels. My camel didn’t have a name, and I wasn’t about to walk through the desert on camel with no name… so I named him Wednesday. Wednesday was a great camel and second in line of the first caravan.

IMG_6342The camel directly in front of us looked to be pregnant because of how fat she was. I mentioned this to the man riding her and his response was, “I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing about me!” Gotta love British humor.

Our stroll through the desert was IMG_6348very nice and full of incredible views. The sun was setting and the surrounding dunes looked striking. With the sun at our backs, our shadows lead the way deep into the desert for what was just under a 2 hour ride. For those of you that are wondering, riding a camel is not comfortable. And after the first 30 minutes or so of our ride I could already feel my toes tingling and my groin aching. Despite the discomfort I wouldn’t have changed a thing, besides installing a cup holder on Wednesday. Every minute the sun dropped lower we were presented with different shades of color spreading across the horizon. I hope you enjoy the pictures but I’m sure you’ll believe me when I tell you that they hardly do the trip justice.

IMG_6345The last hour of our walk was lit by moonlight. The moon was almost full and was like a giant light bulb in the sky. Not only did we have no issues of seeing but we could see everything very clearly. Even once the sun was long gone we still casted glorious camel riding shadows on the dunes close by.

I guess there weren’t enough camels for everyone to get a ride so a small group had to drive into the desert on the roof of an overland jeep. By the sounds of their hooting and hollering it sounded like they were having the time of their lives. I did a bit of quad biking through the Namibian Desert back in 2011 and I can vouch for them that it’s an amazing time. It’s best comparable to a rollercoaster ride with no real start or finish. Part of me was concerned for their safety because they were just hanging onto the roof rack of the jeep but I had a feeling they were all sporting the tightest grips they could muster.

When we arrived to the camp we were told that a meal would be prepared for us. DSC_5647We weren’t really told anything else so we all just hung out and waited. As time went by we grew impatient and directed our attention to Light Painting. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, it’s when you decrease the shutter speed on your camera and wave a flashlight in front of the lens. After some practice you can really start to create some neat images. The trick is being able to picture what you’re drawling in your head as you go because you won’t get to see the finished drawling until the very end. Add this to the fact that you onlyDSC_5652 have about 20 seconds and the task at hand is no easy one. For those of you looking to try this, remember that if you’re writing words you’re going to have to write them backwards… and cursive will be your best bet for starting out. Good luck!!

While we were playing with the lights taginedinner was just being served so we joined everyone back at the tables. Our moonlit supper consisted of rice, veggies, and chicken tagine. Chicken tagine is a very traditional meal served in Morocco and this was about the fourth time we ate in two days. That’s not to say it’s not good… I’ve just had more than enough tagine!

To cook this meal you first need your special earthenware pot, aka your tagine. It’s a slow-cook method where you’ll have your meat, and veggies all mixed together. DSC_5654The cone shape helps steam the vegetables and the flavors all come together. This is generally served with rice or couscous and can be for one person or in our case a table of people. The tagine it’s self can just be placed on a bed of coals for cooking and will keep your dish hot for a lengthy amount of time. Cooking with tagines is becoming more and more popular throughout Europe so many people come down to Morocco where it’s considerably cheaper to purchase the ceramic pot.

When we finished eating, Dan and I decided that we wanted to climb to the top of the sand dune behind our tents. I forgot how difficult it was to hike up a sand dune and this one happened to be the largest one around. We took a few breaks along the way but were determined to reach the peak. For those of you that will be receiving the “very special souvenir” you’ll be happy to know we collected sand from the peak of the tallest sand dune in the Sahara Desert! The fact that it’s the tallest isn’t common knowledge but I’m pretty confident in my calculations. From way at the top we could see for miles in every direction. That’s pretty amazing considering the sun had gone down hours ago and everything we could see was thanks to the massive moon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the moon shine so bright. The brightness of the moon did take away from the star gazing that I had hoped for but I don’t think it really bothered anyone too much because of how awesome everything else was.

The best part about climbing up a sand dune is coming down. I remembered this very well from my previous experience and I was excited to make the run. It took over an hour to climb up and probably under a minute to come all the way down. I was running as fast as I could and loving every second of it.

We were told that we’d be waking up to leave around 5:00 in the morning the following day so most of us went off to bed. A few others decided to climb the dune we had just returned from but I was far too exhausted to even consider doing it again.

Thursday

I woke up around 4:58 to the sounds of silence. I generally wake up just beforeDSC_5688 I’m supposed to, and I think it’s my body’s way of preparing me for the wake up call. I’ve always hated being woke up from a nice sleep so I think my way of coping is to just wake myself up before that can happen. This happens all the time when I’m supposed to be awake at a certain time and it’s never with the help of an alarm. My internal clock has a mind of its own sometimes. Anyway, just because I was awake didn’t mean I was ready to get up, and when I heard no one come by I drifted back to sleep. I again woke a half hour later and then an hour after that and still didn’t hear much going on outside our tent. I woke up Dan and asked him what time we were supposed to get moving and he confirmed that they had told us 5. It was now half past 6 though and everyone still seemed sound asleep. Not long after this, people began moving about and slowly be surely everyone was up and ready to go by 7.

DSC_5728It was bright outside but the sun had still not risen. We walked over to the camels and they again paired us up. I rode the same caravan of camels as I did the first trip only this time I was two camels back. It seemed like the obvious decision to name my new camel Thursday. Once on Thursday we began the long trek back to civilization. Not long after starting were we joined by the sun that quickly jumped out from behind the sand dunes.

Riding out of the desert on Thursday was about as equally enjoyable as riding in on Wednesday.

The rest of the day was spent in the van for a very long drive back to Marrakech. In total I think we were in the van for over 12 hours but I made some progress on a book I had started and was even able to get a bit of writing done. My time in the Sahara, although short lived, was truly amazing. The desert has more to offer than you think!

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A Journey Through the Atlas Mountains

We woke up around 6:30am so that we could be ready for our 7am pick up. Today we’d be joining a group of travelers on a 3 day 2 night dessert safari. Even though Marrakech is one of the main destinations to begin a trip like this, it still involves a LOT of driving. I definitely didn’t fully grasped how much driving it would be until our journey began.

About quarter after 7 we got at knock at our riad and were greeted by two IMG_6169gentlemen looking to take us to our transport. We followed them through the alleyways to the market square, which was looking completely different with all the shops closed up and no people around. As we rounded the last corner we saw a few large white vans parked in a semicircle and there were loads of travelers outside of them. I think each van was pretty much on route for the same course only some were taking as many as 4 days and some were just taking 2.

We joined the group that was on the 3 day track and were just about the last ones to board. There were 4 rows of seats in our van and the back row was still available. Once we were in and situated we were joined by one last couple before we started our trip. At this point there were 2 German girls in the front, 3 Brazilians in the first row, 1 Brazilian and a French couple in the secondIMG_6186 row, 3 more Brazilians in the third row, and myself and Dan with the backseat to ourselves. As you can imagine Dan and I took full advantage of our 4 seats and immediately went about falling back asleep.

The roads were windy and the IMG_6187driving in Morocco is a bit crazy but like the rest of our van, I was also able to fall back asleep. Not long after drifting off did I notice our van pull over for an unexpected stop. I wasn’t really aware of what the first day of traveling consisted of but apparently this was just the first of many scenic stops.

IMG_6190The Atlas Mountains run 1,600 miles across the north western part of Africa, from Tunisia through Morocco. These mountains separate the African Coastline from the Sahara Desert, so our first day of traveling was meant to travel through the Tishka Pass.

I’ve never been on a mountain and not loved the view. There’s just something about viewing the world from such heights. In the winter some of these peaks can even have snow on them, but it was still far too hot for that.

Just before lunch time we pulled up IMG_6224to Ait Benhaddou, an old fortified city. The city was built out of mud straw, and rock on a hill. We walked around the city for an hour or so learning about its history and inhabitants. These days only 8 families remain in the city and with each rainstorm the buildings take on more and more damage. An interesting fact about this city was that many popular movies have been filmed here. The Mummy, Gladiator, the Prince of Persia, and even the Game of IMG_6216Thrones were all filmed at this location, to just name a few. I got the sense that our tour guide was very proud of his village’s fame. He even mentioned to us that he’s been in a few of the movies as an extra!

After lunch we all boarded the van and continued our drive east. At one point we stopped for refreshments and to use the bathroom and were joined by 2 additional travelers. A couple from Spain would be joining us for the next part of the trip and we suddenly had a very packed van. The back seat went from being the most spacious to the most cramped which meant there wouldn’t be any more sleeping for the rest of the day’s travels. Luckily we were only a few short stops away from reaching our destination where we’d spend the evening at a hotel.DSC_5465

Before reaching the hotel we made a scenic stop along the road to watch the sunIMG_6391 set off in the distance. The colors reflecting off the wind eroded rocks were painted in magnificent shades of red. Most of our stops were to just stretch our legs, take some photos, and then hop back in the van but I could have easily spent more time admiring the beauty of the Atlas Mountains.

IMG_6273Day 1 got us halfway to the Sahara and shared with us some hidden Moroccan beauty. To top off the evening I utilized the hotels Wi-Fi for a video chat with my dear friend Patrick McMullen. Anyone that gets to end their night video chatting with this legend will undoubtedly consider their day a massive success!IMG_6389


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Living It Up In Marrakech

IMG_6051After a nice night’s sleep we woke up got our belongings together and went down stairs for our included breakfast. The breakfast consisted of a hard-boiled egg, some bread, orange juice, and mint tea. The mint tea in Morocco is very good, and an excellent starter to any day.

Once we were all set we grabbed a cab to the train station so we could ride to Marrakech. Everyone we’ve talked to has told us that Marrakech is the most popular city to visit in Morocco because it has the most to do. We also knew that most Sahara tours left from Marrakech so it was a pretty easy decision to head that way.

The first time you ride a train in a new country you never really know what to expect. You want to arrive early so you don’t miss your departure but as far as choosing seats goes, it’s a hit or miss game. When we got to the station we were told the next train wouldn’t be leaving for another couple hours, and that the train that had just left was overbooked. From what we’ve been told, you are only guaranteed a seat if you buy first class and with a 3 hour ride ahead of us we didn’t want to risk having to stand.

Our wait wasn’t so bad and before IMG_6078we knew it, it was time to board. With everything in French and Arabic we kept double checking to make sure we were boarding the correct train and headed towards the right compartment. Our seats were pretty nice when we arrived at them and our room was shared with four other riders. Right off the bat I heard one of the girls talking to her friend and targeted her as an American. When traveling in new places it’s sometimes refreshing to hear a familiar accent. Turns out I was only partially right though as she turned out to be from Canada. Her friend she was riding with was her husband and he was born and raised in Morocco. Together they married and lived in Dubai but had traveled back to Morocco for the holiday. With Dan and I just flying in from Dubai we had much to talk about with them and spent the first half of the ride sharing stories and getting tips about how to tour Morocco. During this time we were joined by another couple who quietly took their seats next to me. I think they were exhausted from their travels because it took about an hour before we learned that they were also English speaking and lived in Washington D.C. The two of them were celebrating their one year anniversary and were also planning on venturing off into the Sahara for a couple days. It was a completely coincidence that all the English speakers were placed in the same train car but it worked out very nicely!

One thing I found very interesting was that the Moroccan’s wife (sorry I don’t remember their names, but she’s also the Canadian) was vegetarian and they were in Morocco for the holiday, Eid Al-Adha. This Muslim holiday honors the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael as an act of submission to Allah’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, but before that could happen Allah intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. So once a year friends and families gather together for this religious holiday and sacrifice a sheep, cow, or a goat. As he was telling us this he went on to say that when they arrive in Marrakech he needs to go out and buy two sheep to bring back to his family. I guess being the oldest son requires him to bring home the sheep. Another thing is that the sheep will live for 3 days outside their home before their time is up. The whole time he was explaining this you could tell his wife had some major concerns. From what I understand vegetarians aren’t huge fans of sacrificing animals. We made sure to wish them both the best of luck before we departed!

As soon as we got to Marrakech it was obvious that everyone was right about it IMG_6074being more popular than Casablanca. The streets were much more crowded and the place seemed pretty happening. Dan had booked a couple nights at the Riad Hannah, which was located not far from the market square, so our first task was trying to find our way there. We considered walking but the streets were poorly labeled and we weren’t sure which way to start. Right around this time a truck pulled up to us and offered us a ride. IMG_6072There was only room for one of us to sit in the front with him so I volunteered to sit in the bed. I guess he uses the truck for transporting animals or something because the back end of the truck had a metal gate he enclosed behind me. I gotta say, I felt a bit like a sheep being transported as we drove through the streets of Marrakech, but it was kind of fun as well.

Our driver dropped us off at the start of an alley way and told us that we’d find our riad if we just continued to walk on down. On both sides of this narrow street were small stores and vendors selling everything from meat, to swords. The street went as far as the eye could see and we weren’t finding any signs for our riad. As we walked down every vendor that caught our eye would try to lure us into their shop and try their best to get us to purchase something from them. It’s amazing how persistent these guys can be. Carrying our bags around with us also made us an easy target as vulnerable tourists, so we were anxious to move on. A kid around our age approached us and asked if we needed help finding out accommodation. We told him the name and he said to follow him. He lead us down back alleys and took us right to the front door of the Riad Hannah, I couldn’t imagine we would have found the place without his help. Dan went to tip him for his service and rather than accepting the generous amount the boy asked for a figured 10 times what Dan had offered him! He was asking twice the amount our driver had even asked for! I understand they see tourists as just having an abundance of money, but you have to have some nerve to request a larger tip from someone. After all it’s a tip… not a required payment.

Anyways, our riad was really nice. A riad is the name for a IMG_6070Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard or garden. The word riad actually comes from Arabic and means garden. The walls are often thick stone exterior walls covered in tile or plaster. There are often beautiful designs and patterns found on these walls and our riad was no exception.

Once we were settled in we decided to go back out into the streets and browse through the markets. The closer we got to the market square the more congested the streets became. It was difficult to pass up all the vendors along the walk because they were all offering such interesting items and I knew I could get great prices. I just kept telling myself that I was going to be there for three days and I’d have plenty of time for buying souvenirs later on.

IMG_6093The walk to the square took about 15 minutes but it was an enjoyable walk filled with things I’ve never seen before. When we reached the square the alleyway opened up into massive gathering. I don’t think we walked more than 50 feet before coming across a few Moroccan snake charmers doing their thing. We took pictures but quickly found out that they harass you for money if they see you using your camera. You just have to be stern with them or let them know up front that you have no intention of buying anything or giving them any money.

Just after seeing the snakes we were DSC_5204walking through the square and a man came up to me and placed his monkey on my shoulder. Okay, so maybe I looked interested in holding the monkey but I promise I didn’t ask for it. Their game plan is to first put the monkey in your hands and to then ask for money. You just have to make sure to tell them right away that you either have no money, or that you aren’t interested… even if you kind of are. Because this was our first encounter with the aggressive monkey owner we opted to take a few pictures and afterwards tipped him. Of course the amount we gave him was far less than he wanted, but sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

IMG_6099Our main goal at this point wasIMG_6103 finding a nice place to sit and eat dinner. It was nearing sun down and we hadn’t eaten anything besides a light snack on the train. We set our sights on a restaurant that had a rooftop balcony overlooking the market square and ordered a traditional Moroccan meal of couscous with chicken and vegetables. I liked the dish, but can’t say that I loved it.

When we were finished eating we took a different route to get back to our riad and were beginning to understand the network of alleys that lead in every which way.

We arrived in Marrakech on Saturday and would be departing for our Sahara Desert Tour on Tuesday morning. The following days consisted of wandering throughout Marrakech, learning the proper way to haggle with the vendors, dressing up in traditional Arabic gandooras, charming snakes, hanging with a few locals, and trying a few different Moroccan meals. It was nice being able to stay in the same area for a few days and not have to worry about moving around to much.

DSC_5268How to haggle 101: When entering a store it’s important to not let the vendor know which item you are interested in. If you see something you like it’s best to pay no attention to it. You’ll be presented with a number of items that you may or may not want but you always need to act uninterested with whatever it is they are offering. When the item you are actually interested in is finally presented or you’ve given it away that you’d like to hear more about it, you need to stand your ground. At this point it’s okay to ask the vendor what his starting price is (unless you already know what you should be paying or already know how low you can get it). Let’s say they tell you the price is 1,200 Dh… You’re going to then want to counter their offer with a number closer to 100 Dh. At this point, it’s their turn to look at you like you’re crazy but you need to stand your ground! Immediately they’ll drop their price to say, 800 Dh, but that’s still not what you’re looking for. You again tell them 100 Dh and remind them that you don’t even want the item they are offering. Their next offer will be maybe between 500-600 Dh and at that point you tell them no thanks and begin leaving their store. I promise they will stop you and I promise they will drop their price by at least another 100. Even though it appears they have cut their original price in half you still have no interest in paying 450 Dh and tell them that you’re going to try a different store but perhaps you’ll be back later. They’ll ask what your max price is at this point looking for anything they can get and see if they can meet you somewhere in the middle but that’s all unnecessary. In your head you may be willing to pay up to 200 Dh for the item (about 20 USD) but you tell them the most you’re willing to go is 150 Dh. This will go back and forth for a little longer, and you may need to fake an early exit a few times, or tell them you’re no longer interested but eventually you’ll get the price you want. It’s a game with these guys and if you want to get a fair deal you gotta be tough.

The above story is an accurate account of one of the purchases I made and I still left wondering if I could have gotten the item for less haha. Another strong strategy is letting them know that you just purchased the same item at a different store for a small made up amount, and that if they aren’t interested in selling you their item for the same offer that you’ll just head back to that previously stated store. I know I’m not the best or most experienced at haggling, but I sure enjoy it!

On our last night before departing on our Sahara tour we stayed at a different riad.DSC_5323 The location and Wi-Fi were much better than the riad Hannah but there was a strong smell of cat urine in the air. Because of this, we spent a good part of our evening hanging out on our riad’s rooftop. The views from up top were enjoyable and offered a nice angle to the sun setting. While we were sitting up there listening to music and playing cards we were joined by a guy about our age. Jafar lives in Marrakech and works at the riad DSC_5348we were staying at. As it turns out, he had joined us on the rooftop so he could pay his respects to Allah. He told me that five times throughout the day the loud speaker that blasts over all of Marrakech (and every other Muslim city) is a reminder or calling for those that believe to come and pray. I think the most significant times are when the sun rises and when the sun sets. I’m glad I got the opportunity to meet Jafar because I had been wondering what was being said over those loud speakers ever since we arrived in Dubai.

The night was still young at this point, seeing as the sun had just set, and Dan and I DSC_5244wanted to explore the city square one last time. Only this time we wanted to sport our traditional Arabic clothes. After saying farewell to Jafar we went back to our room and dressed to impress. Interestingly enough we got less stairs walking throughout the square while wearing these clothes than we did in the clothes we had brought. Maybe that makes sense or maybe it was just wishful thinking but either way we had a fun time doing our best to fit in.

Before the night was over I was able to do something pretty special! Back in our riad we had Wi-Fi available in our room and I was able to video chat with my best friend Nick Sgrignoli and his beautiful wife Beth! I haven’t seen or talked to them since August so it was a real pleasure catching up. Thanks again for the call friends, can’t wait to see you once I’m home.

DSC_5254The tour would be leaving the following morning at 7:00am so we were sure to have our things packed and ready to go before going to sleep. Marrakech was a lot of fun, and I look forward to a future visit. DSC_5252DSC_5374DSC_5375DSC_5289DSC_5296