Sahara Sunset

June 28, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

My journey toward Africa began with a 6 hour stop in Madrid. I would have liked to spend more time here, but my schedule didn’t allow. I began at Plaza de España where I sat on a bench a played my guitar for a little while. I kept getting odd looks from people trying to figure out if I was playing for money or not. I wasn’t, but I wouldn’t have minded if they the gave me few cents, or at least a nice look! I walked down the street a little further to the Royal Palace of Madrid, a sprawling complex with a missive garden in the back. Again, because of time, I did not go inside. Next to the Palace was Almudena Cathedral which was a change of style from the massive gothic cathedrals I had seen in Paris and Rome. The colors where bright and lively. In the old part of town was Plaza Mayor, where the street artists are abundant. Can you figure this one out? My best guess is that the guy on the bottom is sitting a platform that’s attached to a fake arm and hand, holding another platform that the guy on top is sitting on. The weight of the guy on bottom holds the platform flat on the ground and thus keeps the structure erect. Spiderman was there, too. I continued my Madrid tour with the Palace of Communication and La Puerta de Alcalá. Afterwards, it was off to the train station to go to Algeciras, Spain, a city near Gibraltar where I would stay for the night and take a ferry to Tanger, Morocco in the morning. 


Morning came and I headed to the port to buy my ticket for the ferry. The passenger area of the port was very quiet and the ferry I was told to head towards was massive. I had one of those moments, questioning myself if I was in the correct place, and what would happen if I wasn’t. Turns out I was in the correct location, but there were only 5 other foot passengers on the boat with me. The majority of the other passengers were driving the cars, motor coaches and cargo trucks. Massive, I tell you. We headed out of Algeciras’ port, which is quite large itself, and toward the African coast. I spent most of the 1.5 hour trip on the deck of the ship enjoying the fresh air and the company of a Swedish father and daughter. Gibraltar was clearly visible on the other side of the bay. I had no idea that most of the country was a giant hill! The also have their own airport, which is too wide for the strip of land that is Gibraltar, so half of the runway sticks out into the ocean. It also crosses the major road, so air traffic and ground traffic have to be coordinated to avoid collision. About thirty minutes in, the African coast became visible! As we approached land, there did not appear to be any more civilization beyond the small port that the boat was pulling into. I soon realized that this was Tanger MED, not the actual city of Tanger which is 50 kilometers away! This bus had some trouble getting off the boat. Luckily, a bus to the city was included in the cost of the ferry and I made it to Tanger just fine. But when the bus arrived to Tanger, I was woke up by a gentleman asking me if I needed directions or a ride somewhere. I told him no because I actually knew exactly where I was going because I had GPS on my phone. He said “Ooo, GPS, that’s new technology. We don’t have that here in Morocco.” I chuckled and kept walking but he insisted that Tanger was confusing and that I needed a ride. Again, I insisted that I did not need his help, but I explained to him that if he felt compelled to walk next to me until the train station, I was no longer going to try to stop him, but I would not pay him for his company. Indeed he accompanied me for 15 minutes to the train station where I said “thank you” and tried to get him to leave. Still, he though I needed help. I had had enough of him so I walked away into the bathroom. Luckily he had left when I came out! I purchased my ticket for the night train to Marrakech later and as soon as I turned to talk away, another gentleman began talking to me. He looked different; well dressed, spoke English very well and didn’t seem pushy. We began talking and turns out he was a contractor for a new apartment building across the street from the station. We were headed the same way out of the train station and he wanted to welcome me to Morocco so we sat down and had a pot of the typical green and mint tea. This would be the first of many times I would have this tea while in Morocco. He hailed a cab to take us up the road near our departure but before we split he treated me to lunch.  I was sitting there trying to understand the situation I was in, finding it hard to believe that I was in Africa, being welcomed by a complete stranger with such hospitality. We feasted on a classic fried fish dish, chicken and liver kebabs and plenty of bread. When out meal concluded, I offered to pay him back for some of the costs. He did take some money, but it certainly was less than I expected. We split paths as he went back to work and I headed to the Medina, or the oldest part of the city. The streets were narrow, crowded, and full of life, but these would not even compare to the streets of Marrakech. Many old canons still sit on the walls of the Medina. I headed for the beach next to kill more time. The water didn’t seem terrible clean and there was a funky smell to it, so I refrained from swimming. Instead, I sat on the beach playing my guitar and watching the camels and horses trot by. 


To be completely honest, I could not have told you where Marrakech, Morocco was on a map a month and a half ago. So for those of you wondering where exactly I was, here you go! 

When I got to Marrakech in the morning, I headed directly to my hostel. This place was unlike any other hostel I’ve seen or likely will seen. No sign. No light. No anything. Just a door that appears to lead into a house. The entire place was open air, with a central hole in the middle of the building. There was a terrace on the roof where most people lounged to catch some sun during the day and hang our at night. It is also where I slept because they were out of beds! Luckily I had my hammock! I met several people in the hostel that urged me to do a Sahara excursion. They had just returned from their excursion the night before and kept raving about how amazing it was. I had heard that these expeditions could cost hundreds of dollars, so I originally wasn’t planning on taking one, however I did want to do it. But when I heard that this particular three day, two night excursion only costed $100, I couldn’t resist. I immediately went to get signed up to leave the next morning. This was the booking office. After all of these logistics and traveling, I needed to get out and see Marrakech! I had been needing a haircut for a weeks now, and what better place to get your hair cut than the markets of Marrakech? I had a hostel friend with me at the time and graciously caught some of the action. He was very precise and thorough! 

Thirty minutes and five dollars later, I had a fresh new style! He should be proud of his work.

We continued in the markets, peeking around every corner just to see what was there. I came back to the hostel for a while to escape the 100 degree mid-day heat. Once again I headed out to see more of the city. Fruit and vegetable stands were abundant, but orange juicers were even more so! They squeezed the juice right into your cup. A nice way to cool off from the heat of the day. The main square called Jemaa el-Fnaa is a diverse place; in the daytime it boasts many fruit and flower stalls as well as other items, but throughout the evening those stalls disappear and the henna artists, snake charmers and food carts make their way into the square. Within an hour, the square transforms completely! The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest and most visible mosque in Marrakech, though it is not alone. Everywhere you look in Morocco are mosques, all equipped with speakers to make the daily prayer announcements. Though Marrakech is far inland, it’s a relatively green city.

The spices available are nearly endless! It wasn’t until I climbed onto the roof of the hostel did I realize that you could actually see the Atlas Mountains in the background of the city.  The minaret in the sunset as seen from the roof of the hostel. Early the next day, I gather my things to head out on the Sahara Excursion! There were three from my hostel that were also going, Alex, Alev and Jessy from England. When the van arrived, four others were joining us. Amira, Elsa and Karen from Mexico and Danillo from Brazil. Our driver only spoke Arabic and French, but he was very nice and didn't mind out chatter in the background. Our first stop on the three day trip was just outside of Marrakech where the landscape started to rise. 
Plenty of vegetation still, but the dryness was apparent. Our can with Alex kneeling, Alev and Jessy standing watch behind.  Lots of cacti in this area. 
Mules are a typical mode of transportation here. It's not uncommon for these animals and their owners to share the roads in the winding Atlas mountains.  Another sweeping valley. Some good 'ole Hook 'Em Horns in Africa.  As we ascended further into the High Atlas Mountains, the vegetation disappeared. The road through the pass was incredibly narrow and windy, but our drive, Abdul, was well versed in these blind corners.  The pass road. After we crossed the High Atlas, the landscape flattened again. The Berber are the indigenous people of Morocco, who keep to their traditions for centuries ago. This is one of their villages. 
Crazy rock formations.  Arid.  Another Berber Village. This one is protected by UNESCO. A fighting ring for the movie Gladiator was also set up in this village.   Most building out this far are made using mud, bamboo, brick and wood. 
Inside a Berber house.  Our tour guide of the Berber village, and a Berber himself.  This village was set up on a river, hence the greenery in the dry landscape beyond.  You can see the grass on the walls used for reinforcement.  The river basin further down stream. The river was dry this time of year.  Our next stop was a massive lake. The water had in incredible blue color about it, especially in contrast to the brown dirt surrounding it.  Some structures on a peninsula in the lake. 
Small villages were all over the place. There are so many people that live far from any large towns, yet they are able to support themselves. 
Little splurges of green. 
Farm land in the valley.
These rocks looked like fingers.  I'm not sure what trees these are, but from a distance they looked like they had snow on the tops of them. Not here in Africa. More funky rocks. Mules, again, as the main mode of transporting goods in this region.  A very diverse landscape, this country has.  When we made it to our hotel for the first night, it was in this large canyon with a river running in the bottom. We had an hour or so before dinner, so Alex, Danillo and I went exploring.  We scaled half way up this face which overlooked the valley and our hotel at the bottom. I left my camera at the base, so I don't have any photos from the climb.  On our way back to the hotel, we ran into a pair of dogs. They went swimming too.  In the river. More of a stream, I guess.  We began day two by stopping at a farming village and wondering through their fields. Each family owns a rectangle of land which they farm and tend daily. I only saw women out on this particular morning.  Some kids that were helping their parents.  We were right up in their business.  In the village, we got to go into yet another Berber home where we were shown many handmade Berber rugs. They were all so beautiful and unique. The ultimate goal for the guide was to get us to buy one, but none of us travelers have the money or space to carry a rug through the rest of our journey!  The vertical loom used by the Berber women to make the rugs. Some locals having tea.  More things to buy than one has space to take home. 
So we packed up and kept on toward the desert. 
More unique geographic features.  Our guide took us next to a large gorge, just beyond the village (above). Here, natural spring water rises from the ground and the river begins. Many children were here playing in the clean, fresh water. We were there to play as well.
The gorge was several hundred feet tall. 
Okay, I like being in the water. I get it. 
A couple from Colorado had rented climbing equipment from their hotel and were scaling the walls. I was very jealous.  Next we headed for lunch and another escape from the heat and the long van ride. 
Danillo and Amira both had iPads and the restaurant had wifi, so naturally, we were all on the interent. 
The Arabic Coca-Cola logo. 
Danillo and his iPad.  A guy tending to his stock. Wouldn't want any of it to fly off the truck.  Not after long, the mountains behind us got very small and the road ahead flattened. I could tell we were getting close. 
And then, out of no where, massive red sand dune could be seen on the horizon. The desert just...began. This is from the back porch of the building we left the "real world" from.  We were welcomed to the desert with tea and one last chance to shower and use the restroom.  Alev checking out the sand. It's legit.  Our two guides and my camel, Jimi Hendrix. Jimi got his name because I carried my guitar with me...on the camel...into the desert.  Danillo, Alex and Jessy in their turbins turbans.
A view from atop the camel! These guys were tall! 
So we began into the Sahara Desert for the night!  A few trees still loomed near the boarder, but they disappeared once we got further into the desert.  The shadows were so cool.  The only way ride a camel into the hand, Mom!  Dunes. The lines they form are quite spectacular!  More awesome shadows and views.  Massive sand dunes.  Line.

This grass found a way to grown out here. Pretty amazing.  One of our desert guides.  Shadows, again. The beginning of an amazing sunset.  Our tracks. 
Jimi, close and personal. The rest of our camels.  Karen. 
I got to lead for a while, until Jimi started to misbehave.  Me and my blue turban.  After an hour and a half of riding, we dismounted and ran to the top of a large dune to watch the sunset! This was looking back at our camels.  Danillo from afar.  The little waves in the sand.  Keep on going!  More waves.  Watching the Saharan sunset.  We made it!  Silhouette Sand. 
Saharan sunset.  The sun appears to move so quickly when it's near the horizon. 
My amazing Chaco tan and the sunset!  Almost gone.  Everybody. After the sunset, we got back on the camels to ride thirty more minutes until we reached our camp which was already set up. It was several large tent that seemed somewhat permanent. This is exactly where we were.

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Dinner, of course, started with more tea. 
We ate and hung out.  We played a little guitar.
Our guides entertained us with some drumming and signing.  When the night was over, I headed up the sand dune to set up my camera for the night. I shot a time lapse of the stars for as long as my camera stayed alive. I slept next to it, alone on the sand dune, in the Sahara Desert, under the Milky Way. Wow.

This was my situation in the morning.  This was by far the coolest part of my trip so far, but there is still so much yet to do and see! 




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