Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Zagora: Heading Out

Part 1

I sat in the front of the van, in between the driver and the daughter of the Danish mother-daughter duo. [Who, I'd like to add, also happened to have a pen pal from Texas. How does that happen?]

We had some amazing views through the front windshield, but that wasn't my favorite part. Right before we left the city, when driver stopped to get gas, he also bought two bags of freshly baked rolls. I figured they might be a snack for him for later, maybe to share with someone who lived at one of our destinations.

But no.

Instead, there were a few points along the road where he would slow down, honk his horn, and then toss the bread out the window to the waiting groups of stray dogs gathered by the side of the road. I really wish I had gotten a picture of this.

One of the photos I did take.
We had about a 7 hour drive in total, but didn't cover a whole lot of ground for two reasons. 1) Meadering mountain roads and 2) fifty bazillion stops.

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, of course. But oh, how much I hate driving in the mountains. Another reason I was very glad to be sitting in the front.
Green everywhere.
Most of the stops were about 5 minutes to take pictures [although we did have a few unplanned stops after one of the kids got carsick, poor thing]. Surprisingly, considering the number of tourist groups who must pass along this road, there were only 1 or 2 places where people were also selling tourist stuff. The whole mountainous area reminded me a lot of Peru, but there were typically a lot more vendors along the roads there.

Village in the distance.
We also had two cafe stops that were about 20 minutes long. The driver disappeared for some tea or something, and we generally took the time to use the restrooms, buy snacks, and of course, take some more pictures. Unfortunately, the drivers aren't allowed to serve as "tour guides" or narrate the journey, but I was perfectly content to just stare out the window.

Now it looks like we're in the desert.
It was hilarious to me as a Texan that the other passengers were constantly asking how much longer - to lunch, to the next stop, etc. [I understood when they wanted to know for the carsick kid's sake, but they did it again on the way back too.] When I take 7 hour drives at home, we usually stop once to eat and then we're good the rest of the way. Europeans are spoiled that way, I guess.

The Danes asked me how this compared to the Grand Canyon.
We had a two hour long stop for our sightseeing and lunch [the next post]. We were directed to one of the obviously touristy restaurants that offered full meals at the outrageous price of 100 dirhams...or less than 10 euros. I am totally okay with that kind of tourist price hike.

We made it to the city of Zagora at about 6 in the evening. The driver told us this was our last chance to buy water before going into the desert. We had all come well-provisioned, so we drove straight through the city to the meeting point where our camels awaited us.

There will be a post all about the camels [soon, I swear].

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zagora Desert Excursion

I've been going back and forth on whether to include all of this excursion in one post or split it up. But seeing as that indecision has only encouraged further procrastination - and given that's it's already a month after my trip, further procrastination is not really desirable - I've decided that it will be easier for me to get a little bit written at a time. [And probably easier for you to read because as one post, it would be entirely too long.]

So! Here's a little bit about the beginning of the 2 day excursion I took from Marrakesh, Morocco.

Me enjoying the wonderfully warm and sunny weather. April is the perfect time to visit Morocco.
I booked this excursion online before I left through gomoco.net because I am super paranoid about having things planned out. [Well, at least partially. I did wait until the day before leaving Soria to book it, but whatever.] There were some conflicting reviews online about the company, but overall, I'm really happy with how it turned out.

I want to say a little bit about the booking, in case anyone wants to visit Morocco :) I picked this website because it was almost the only one that offered an inexpensive shared group tour. As in, a tour group that accepted people traveling on their own. Lots of companies advertise private tours, which are probably great for families, but way out of my living-on-a-monthly-stipend budget.

My tour cost around 50 euros, which paid for transportation, dinner and breakfast at the camp, and sleeping in the tents. There was a 20% deposit for booking online, after which the booking company directed you to pay when you were picked up the morning of the trip.

But I had to argue with the train station pick up driver, and his boss on the phone, because he expected me to pay then. Luckily, my online research had forewarned me that this could happen, so I was prepared to argue. It may not have been much money, but I was definitely not handing over anything until I was actually leaving on the trip.

A beautiful map of the area. Points of interest on the tour: Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou, Zagora, and Ouarzazate.
As it turns out, it would have been super easy to book the trip from one of the hostels I stayed in, but I ended up spending about the same amount of money AND got a free ride from the train station to my hostel, which after my interesting train trip made it 100% worth it.

Speaking of hostels...that first night I stayed in an interesting little hostel - it was insanely cheap and they served mint tea at check-in and made us a wonderful free dinner. But there were several reasons it was so cheap, namely: I had a top bunk and I felt like I was going to pull the whole bed down on top of me every time I climbed up the ladder. Seriously.

Far too early the next morning, I precariously got out of bed, fought for a free bathroom [again, I'm not even exaggerating that much], stuffed all my things into my backpack, and headed back to the drop off/pick up point.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited. I asked just about every tourist van I saw if they were from the tour company I had booked with, but most of them were doing airport transport. Finally, there was a guy who at least knew of the company. He spoke enough English to indicate that they weren't there yet but he would tell me when they were.

At this point, I was mad that I had skipped the hostel's homemade breakfast and terrified that the van had left without me. It was super reassuring to know that I had only paid 15 euros so far, which wasn't a terrible price for the train station pickup if I ended up having to pay for a different excursion.

The nice, comfy tourist van. They're supposed to be air conditioned, but I couldn't tell if this one was or not.
But then, after 45 agonizing minutes, a caravan of vehicles, as well as a mass of people from the nearby hostels and hotels, appeared at exactly the same time. [Apparently, they had all gotten the memo about the actual time the tour started.]

I was directed to a guy who seemed to be organizing the chaotic groups and paid the rest of my fee, then followed him as he went looking for an open seat.

Two interesting things happened in this chaos. First, I heard someone call out my name, which threw me for a moment because I do not have the most common name in the world AND it was pronounced correctly. Then I saw a fellow auxiliar who happened to have been sitting next to me on the flight over. In what has to be one of the biggest coincidences of all time, he and his group of friends happened to have almost the exact same itinerary as me, excursion and all.

And second, when they finally found a van with open seats, I ended up being the only American with a bunch of people from Denmark. And it wasn't that there was a big group of them traveling together - there was a school group with 12 people, leaving 3 open seats in the van. So I took one of them, and then the other two were taken by a mother and daughter also from Denmark.

Two separate groups of Danish people who had never met before just happened to be on the same excursion and end up in the same car.

From a country with a smaller population than the entire city of Dallas.

The odds must be astronomical.

We settled into our seats, stopped to get some gas, and then the adventure really began.