Summer of 2017 was incredibly special and inevitably spontaneous for me. I lived in Catalonia’s sparkling capital city Barcelona so traveling around the Mediterranean was as easy as imbibing in the Spanish vino. One weekend, I travelled to Morocco with some new friends from my study-abroad program. To this day, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it was an intimate, eye-opening and cultural trip of a lifetime for many reasons.
I learned a lot about myself, trust and how lucky I was to grow up in the U.S. during this trip, especially since it was the first time I ever experienced intense culture shock. In 2017, I was one of the first million passengers that visited the Fez Sais airport.
We were all a little skeptical too, since some of our parents and friends weren’t thrilled about our weekend adventure due to their misguided perceptions of Islamic culture portrayed in the media. I’m here to tell everyone to think differently of this part of the world, because my experience was astonishing.
The cheap Ryan Air flight from Barcelona (BCN) to Fez (FEZ) was a quick two hours and it was intimidating since (at that time) flights were only available every few days at that airport. It’s still only scheduled to 38 destinations around the world. So tensions were high because if we missed our flight there, our trip would be cancelled and if we missed it on our way home, we wouldn’t get back in time for our internships or classes.
My anxiety was high not only because the flight was rather cheap, but it was also quite turbulent. I was also one of the only women not wearing a hijab, which was a new experience for me. So I listened to music with the volume on high to calm my nerves until the pilot said we were 20 minutes away. I took out my headphones to kind of take it all in; I mean I was actually about to land on another continent, in Africa, somewhere I never imagined visiting until a few hours before I booked my flight.
The man seated next to me looked to be about my age and started talking to me. I was in awe with everything he said: He said it’s common for people from Morocco to go to school in France since so many people study French; his family dynamics in Morocco aren’t what I assumed – his parents let his younger sister decide if she would wear a hijab (she doesn’t) and he told me about the Ramadan practice. He asked me questions about my summer in Spain and life in America and told me his hopes and dreams about moving there one day. That was the first moment I felt incredibly fortunate for my upbringing and started to think deeply about this upcoming experience.
Little did I know I’d be exposed to the unexpected and continuously be amazed for the next two days and two nights.
We arrived when it was dark and exited the plane on the runway. I didn’t expect the airport to be as modern and beautiful as it was. It was filled with intricate, vibrant designs and bright lighting throughout. Our tour guide greeted us before we boarded the caravan they called a “mini bus” to our hostel in Fez. Right away, he took on the role of our protector and made us laugh and feel extremely safe. Maybe he felt the tension and culture shock radiating between the five of us.
Some of our fellow passengers were children playing with a ball, and some of them worked up enough courage to ask us questions about America as we trekked along. We wore long sleeves and loose, flowy pants, yet somehow they knew without question where we were from. They followed us as we walked through the narrow paths between tall, white walls to our hostel building. It’s like we were famous or something, by the way they excitedly smiled as we answered their questions while passing by on the sandy streets.
We made it to our hostel and ate street food from quite literally, a hole in the wall of rock. It resembled a sub or hoagie station, but was so much better.
We left our hostel early in the morning for a seven-hour drive along rugged roads through the Middle Atlas Mountains. We stopped in the Cedars Forest in Azrou where wild monkeys, dogs and goats roamed free. For lunch we spent some time in the small town of Midelt, renowned for rocks and fossils, where I bought Oreos, sour cream and onion Pringles and a large water bottle the five of us shared once we reached the hot Sahara Desert later that evening. The scenery drastically changed from green forests and springs to red and golden sandy rocks and Berber villages.
The Berber villages we drove through looked like ghost towns, but people waved as we drove past their yards and businesses. We stopped at a random but beautiful oasis with panoramic views and bartered for the first time for jewelry at a nomad’s stand nearby. As we wound our way through rocky roads and twisted terrain, we took in all the views we could, for this wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen before. We visited a kasbah, where a village leader used to live under high walls similar to a courtyard, along the sand dunes in Erg-Chebbi.
After the sand dunes in Erg-Chebbi, we arrived at what looked like a castle that appeared in the middle of nowhere. Our driver took us in a 4x4 along roads I didn’t even realize were there, since all we could see were sand and tire tracks. At the castle/kasbah hotel, we changed into our desert wear, drank amazing mint tea and met our camels we’d ride into the sunset. It sounds like a dream, but this was so real and surreal, all at the same time.
We each hopped on our own camel that was not only our transportation but our new best four-legged friend; my friend’s was named Bob Marley. We were in the same tour group as a couple from France with their young daughter. Our tour guides led the way up and down pinnacles of sand dunes; it was crazy how well they knew their way around the desert. To us, it just looked like an endless field of soft sand, clear blue sky and really hot sun.
When we arrived at camp, our tour guides started making us dinner in huts and began to unwind the well for drinking water. We were just a few miles away from the Algerian border. The Midwestern, Wisconsin girl in me was confused as to why they handed us a snowboard, but I put two and two together and slid down the sand in no time. I wasn’t the next best sand boarder but it’s definitely something I can cross off my bucket list.
Our camels all herded together for the evening as we sat atop the softest sand dunes to watch the sunset. Then we ate dinner in a hut while wild kittens pranced around. That was something I never expected to see, especially since we were in the middle of nowhere.
After dinner, the guides started a campfire and we sat in a circle around it as they played soft Saharan music. When it got dark and the fire was still going, four other random nomads wearing their hijabs and traditional Moroccan outfits joined the party since they heard the beat of the drums. They even brought their own drums so they could play along; it seemed like this was a regular thing. Yes, that really happened. It was very picturesque like out of a movie as we listened, joined in and played different drums and simply stargazed during it all.
We slept without blankets because it was super hot at first and then it turned into what felt like a chilly fall night. There were beds set up in the huts for us, but we kept switching because of the temperature changes from those to mats near the campfire. It’s strange to think I was shivering while lying on the floor of the largest hot desert in the world.
Waking up with the sun was so easy as we watched it rise from sand dunes alongside our new four-legged camel friends. The sand felt so cool and refreshing as we watched the Moroccan sunrise for the last time. After we finished being cheesy painting and carving our initials in the sand with our hands and feet, we hopped on our camels and headed back to our hotel for breakfast alfresco. We poured ourselves the tasty tea again and it was like liquid gold even though it was hotter than the air outside. We had to ration the water bottle long before we left for breakfast so we were very dehydrated.
After we fueled up, we squeezed into the 4X4 and left for Rissani’s tanneries and collection of markets that gave us a window into the locals’ worlds. We had to stop in a rug shop and it wasn’t anything like buying one back home. We all sat in a room framed by rugs – they were on the floor, one on top of the other and covering any hint of the walls inside – and a salesman introduced us to haggling, aka bargaining, for the second time on this trip. This cultural purchasing process was so peculiar to me. I knew I couldn’t accept his first offer and felt nervous and rude to offer a lower number, but that’s the game you have to play. The unspoken rule is that you’re expected to meet in the middle, around 50% of the initial price offered.
Other shops we stopped at sold a little bit of everything: clothing, jewelry and spices every color of the rainbow. On our drive back to Fez we decided to test our new haggling skills and stopped to shop at a miniature roadside market where I got a beautiful blue and silver necklace from a kind man’s desert jewelry display.
My time in Morocco was the wildest trip I’ve ever taken and it felt so good to be completely unplugged the entire time. As we were on the road to the airport we passed a car that had a sticker on it that said “viajar es vivir” which translates to “to travel is to live,” in Spanish. It was ironic we were heading back to Spain as we came across that happy quote, while we were all secretly worried we’d miss our flight. It was a nice reminder to chill out and enjoy the moment because we’d never get it back. As I was window shopping for classic airport souvenirs while we waited for our flight, a cheery woman approached me asking if I was from the Midwest – she said my accent sounded like home. I said I was from Wisconsin and it turns out she and her little boy were too, they were stationed in Morocco for the military. In the short time I was in Morocco, there were little reminders that popped up that made me so happy and inspired by how big this world is while being so small at the same time.