Speeding into Marrakech

I stepped down from a fifty passenger bus, my feet connecting with the pavement of a busy street in the heart of Casablanca, Morocco. Dusk was approaching quickly and an atmosphere of sea salt filtered the late afternoon sunlight into a glow that cast a lovely, soft light onto the mosque that we’d ventured into the city to see. Casablanca was just a short stop on our way to Marrakech, but most of the Percussive group had opted to leave the airport during our layover to at least get a glimpse of Morocco’s largest city.

A long line at immigration followed by terrible traffic on the way into the city meant that we’d only be making one stop on our impromptu layover tour, and that was to the Hassan II Mosque. The mosque’s granite exterior practically glowed as we all stared at it in amazement. Hassan II Mosque holds a few distinctions as it is the largest operating mosque in Africa, the 7th largest in the world, and has the world’s second tallest minaret.

We couldn’t stay for long, but we all admired the mosque’s intricate, teal tile work before our bus driver pulled back around to pick us up. He drove us back to the airport along the Atlantic coast and we enjoyed relaxing views of the ocean, and occasional camels plodding along the shore. I couldn’t help but feel a bit tired. A day of travel will do that, and we were only halfway done for the day. Once we had left the shore, I took a nap, waking only when the bus stopped once again back at the airport. Then it was back through security for us, and onto the small plane that would be carrying us to Marrakech. By the time we finally made it to our hotel, the Akabar, it was already 10 PM, and I would’ve loved nothing more than to go straight to bed, but instead we stayed up a bit later to get some dinner (it had been at least twelve hours since our last meal). I finally crashed into bed, thoroughly exhausted, which would end up being the theme of our short stay in Morocco.

I definitely could have slept in the next morning, but we had an early walking tour scheduled, and I was more than excited to get out of the hotel and see the city. Our guide met us in the lobby and led us on a walk all the way to the medina, the walled section of the city that is home to a maze of souks known for getting tourists hopelessly lost; Vince and I planned to test our own navigational skills in the souks later on.

We learned about how the city’s walls were constructed, and got several great views of the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque.

Then our guide led us down a narrow street lined with riyads, or walled homes with beautiful gardens in their central courtyards. We were just learning about how different knocks on a riyad door send certain signals to its owners when a motorcycle came zipping along the cramped corridor. Stepping backwards to hug the wall, I accidentally bumped into a door. Almost immediately, a woman opened it up to answer my perceived knock, and I apologized embarrassedly in a sad attempt at French.

The walking tour continued through tight passages lined with colorful, hand woven rugs and shining metalwork, but Vince and I wandered off on our own when the tour stopped at an argan oil shop. After a brief demonstration, the stop had turned into a drawn-out sales pitch for every spice under the sun, and after about twenty minutes of it, we crept out of the shop in favor of seeing more of the medina before our next tour. We happened upon the large open square filled with juice venders, and I bought a freshly squeezed apple juice which we shared as we trekked back to the hotel to meet up with our next tour. There was just enough time for me to change into some grubbier clothes before a van arrived to take us and a handful of other Percussive travelers out into the desert for a quad bike tour.

When we arrived at Marrakech Quad Action, we were immediately outfitted with hair nets and helmets, and I strapped my GoPro onto my wrist so I could record some video of the ride. As we picked out our quads, it occurred to me that I had never actually driven one before. Last time Vince and I did a quad tour, we doubled up and I let him do the driving. I was excited to try it out for myself though, and we did a few practice laps around a yard to get the feel for it before peeling out onto the road, passing a couple of camels along the way.

Nothing but barren, red desert surrounded us as we zipped along on our quads. I was riding behind Nicolette, who we’d met on the trip, although I could barely see her through the cloud of dust her quad was kicking up. Meanwhile, Vince and Nicolette’s partner, Kirk, kept getting scolded by our guide for doing donuts every chance they got. They obviously wanted to go faster, but I was decently excited with the pace we were going since it was my first time in the driver’s seat. Actually I seemed to remember I found Vince’s driving a bit terrifying the last time we’d been on a quad, so I was quite content to be in control now.

Eventually we took a break in a palm oasis that had materialized seemingly out of nowhere from the sandy desert. Our guide handed out bottles of water, which was much appreciated, and I did my best to wipe most of the dust off of my mouth before taking a drink. Now that we’d stopped I noticed that I was sweaty and coated in dust from head to toe, but I was having a blast.

Once we were all hydrated, we rode a little ways farther until we reached a small town where we stopped for afternoon tea. A young boy served us Moroccan mint tea, holding the teapot high in the air, and pouring it perfectly into glass cups that sat on the table. He also laid out a basket of spongey flat bread, honey to dip it in, and an assortment of amazing olives. It was a relaxing break from being out in the blistering sun, and everything was delicious. This was my first taste of Moroccan mint tea, something I had been highly anticipating as I am a little tea-obsessed, and it did not disappoint. It was very hot, but surprisingly refreshing because of the cooling effect of the mint.

On our return ride we got a few more fun obstacles in the form of bigger hills and a shallow river that we got to ride through. Once we were back at the yard, we parked our quads and then did our best to blow the dust off of ourselves with an air compressor. Based on how we looked by the time our van picked us up, you would think that we must not have anything fancy to do for the rest of the day, and you would be wrong.

Back at the Hotel Akabar, those of us covered in dust had barely enough time to try to make ourselves presentable for a sunset dinner at the Agafay Desert Luxury Camp. Vince and I changed into clean outfits, and I touched up my makeup, then we barreled back downstairs to the lobby where most of the group was ready to board another bus. We all climbed inside and we were off, headed back into the desert. I managed another bus nap as we ambled along, which gave me a nice boost of energy when we finally arrived at the five-star glamping resort.

It was truly remote, the only view for miles in any direction being yellow sandy hills. We walked up a rainbow staircase to a hilltop restaurant that provided a view of the expansive desert, and the distant Atlas Mountains. There were plenty of poofs to lounge on as we watched the sun go down and sipped mint tea.

Dinner started at dusk and we all sat at one long table where were got to try a huge spread of appetizers before our waiter brought out several tajines. He lifted the lids of the tent-shaped ovens to reveal vegetarian and chicken dishes. The food was spiced to perfection, and I was thrilled with how easy it was to find good vegetarian food in Morocco.

After dinner, we sat under the stars and enjoyed a live performance. Then we warmed up next to a roaring campfire until we had to head back to Marrakech. We arrived back at the hotel around eleven, and I was mentally already crashing into bed when Jared asked if Vince and I wanted to go out and find somewhere to smoke shisha. Vince immediately agreed, and I was all but ready to say no thanks when Richard said he would join them. With all three of them going the peer pressure was simply too much for me, so I agreed to go and we walked to a nearby hookah lounge called The O1ne where we got delicious mocktails and three different flavors of shisha. None of us smoke in real life, but it’s become a weird tradition that we do whenever we’re in North Africa or the Saudi Peninsula. Of course, it ended up being a lot of fun, and I was glad I went, although I was still grateful to finally get to sleep when we made it back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning. In just a few more hours we’d be awake again for our longest day tour of the whole trip!

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