Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore...

In fact, it felt as if we were in a completely different world...

Mary and I went to Morocco this weekend, and what an experience we had!

We flew into Casablanca on Friday and took a train to Marrakesh. Our plan was to take the train at 7:00, since we arrived at the station at 6:30. We sat down to wait, and waited and waited and waited...Finally we realized that the train was delayed two hours. But our train never came, so we just took the train at 10:00. So did everyone else. Mary climbed aboard before me, and after fighting through the crowd I saw her turn around and say: "Well, it looks like we're standing."

There was standing room only on the train...

We were disbelieving, but a conversation with a man standing near us convinced us that this was normal, for Morocco. Our first lesson was that Moroccan efficiency is not quite up to par with Europe, and far from the United States.

The second lesson we learned was about 45 minutes later, when a young man sitting in the cabin near us gave his seat up for Mary. The Moroccan people are very friendly and welcoming. They were surprised that we didn't speak any French (Morocco was a French colony, so after Arabic French is considered the national language). We were told many times that French is spoken in the country, not English. We were able to find people who spoke just enough English to get us by.

We arrived, completely exhausted, in Marrakesh around 1:30. There was a slight complication with our hostel (it's a long story...) but we finally found a place (it wasn't exactly The Ritz...) to sleep for a few hours before waking early on Saturday to join our tour.

We got in the tour van around 7:45 and started driving towards the Sahara Desert, through the High Atlas Mountains. As a girl from the mid-west, you can imagine my delight at seeing real mountains! Incredible.

There were 15 people total on our tour, mostly students like Mary and me, but a middle-aged nurse from France (who also lived in the U.S. for 14 years and therefore was our translator and adopted "mom" for the weekend) as well as a family from France. We drove all day, stopping to take pictures and eat lunch. One of our stops was at a Women's Cooperative where they harvest almonds and extract the oils to make cosmetic and cooking oils. The women work for about 5 euros (~$7) a day. And I complain about making $7 an hour. Reality check.

Around dusk we arrived at our last stop where we bought water, used the restroom, and bought scarves which were wrapped around our heads and faces to protect us from the desert sands. And then we met our camels! We rode for about 2 hours, away from the "city," into the Sahara.

We reached our camp and were ushered into the common tent for dinner. It was cooked by members of the Bedouin tribe, and it was delicious. Soup, vegetable stew, mint tea, and oranges for desert. The tent was made of oriental tapestries, in deep turquoise and magenta colors. It was lit by candles and oil lamps, hopefully you can picture the ambiance! After dinner the instruments came out and we were entertained with traditional music. Then they let us try the drums.

It was off to bed, then, because we had an early start in the morning. One of our hosts walked us to the makeshift bathroom tent (I heard rumors of snakes, so I was glad for the company). And then we settled into our beds; a sort of mattress inside a tent. There were 4 mattresses in each tent. I can't describe how amazing it was to see the stars, so far away from any sort of light pollution!

I woke to dogs barking in the middle of the night...I learned in the morning that the dogs are there to guard the camels. Apparently, "camel trafficking" is a bit of an issue.

After breakfast we mounted the camels and rode for about 45 minutes, until we reached a road and our van driver met us there. We spent the day traveling through the mountains again, back to Marrakesh.

Mary and I took a train to Casablanca and found our hotel and were finally able to take showers, which was a great feeling! The joy that brought was clouded a bit later by the news that flights back to Europe were being canceled right and left. Mary was informed that her flight to Milan would not be leaving in the morning. Unsure of what Monday would bring, we decided to take advantage of real beds and get a good night of sleep.

In the morning we went to the airport, contemplating our options. We have a family friend who is always positive-he has a wonderful presence-and when you ask him how he is doing he always responds: "I am blessed, challenged, and overcoming." His words popped into my head at just the right moment and helped Mary and I keep our wits about us, taking the day one bit at a time.

My flight was still on schedule for Madrid, thankfully. I felt awful leaving Mary, not knowing how, exactly she was going to get to Milan. She had on a brave face and handled the situation well. She found a flight to Tangier, in northern Morocco, just across the Straight of Gibralter from Spain. So she flew there, crossed into Spain, took a train to Barcelona, and by the time she reached Barcelona she was able to fly into Milan...

Despite the stresses of traveling, Morocco was amazing. Such an experience! We were not able to spend any time in the city of Marrakesh, though I would have liked to do so. But our desert expedition was like nothing I have ever done or seen. My first instinct was to wonder how these people lived like they do; donkeys used as a means of transportation of things and people, women carrying baskets on their heads (though there were not many women wandering the streets), children running barefoot and selling little creations from grass and other materials, people holding exotic animals and asking for was all a bit surreal. But then I realized that these people have a functioning society. What they do and how they live, yes, it is a far cry different than what I know, but it works for them. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience.

I will work on uploading pictures soon, but tomorrow I am leaving for Lisbon, Portugal! I feel like I have barely been in Salamanca during the past month and a half. But don't worry, I am certainly not complaining!

I hope you all are doing well. I am missing the U.S. a bit more each day! And of course my family and friends...

Much love,

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