As published in The Jakarta Globe Newspaper:
As a lone female traveler, making my way through the crowded alleys of Marrakech, one of Morocco’s imperial cities, turned out to be a real battle.
I had to acrobatically twist my body to avoid getting hit by reckless motorcycles, while at the same time fighting off persistent vendors and shushing away catcalls by curious men — all under the sizzling heat of the Moroccan sun.
Like most days in the city, the sun was beating down and the temperature was hovering at around 40 degrees Celsius. I instantly felt overdressed in my coat and shawl — tell-tale signs of a tourist escaping the tail-end of a cool British summer.
The short bus ride from Marrakech’s Menara Airport ended at a park in the center of the city. I showed the driver the address of my riad (guesthouse) and he confidently assured me that I’d find it without hassle. Just follow the park and walk straight through the square, he said. It sounded easy enough.
But it wasn’t. Coming out of the park, I was greeted by the hectic Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square in the middle of Marrakech’s old city where all the essences of Moroccan life are stirred together in a flurry of sights and smells.
Aside from being the first port of call for tourists visiting Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fnaa is also famous among locals for its large souk (market), selling everything from spices to couscous and high-quality souvenirs.
The square was alive with people and traffic. Beige-colored taxis and swarms of motorcycles crossed the square recklessly, oblivious to pedestrians. In one corner of the square, horse carriages were lined up, enticing tourists to try this exotic mode of transport.
Disoriented, I carefully made my way to the square, following the crowds spilling forward through the chaos. The air was thick with the smells of unfamiliar spices and horse manure baking under the sun. Everybody seemed to be moving and speaking at the same time.
Locals wearing the traditional djellaba (a hooded garment with long sleeves) passed by chattering among themselves in French and Arabic. Flocks of confused European tourists wearing sunglasses and hats argued in English, French and occasionally Spanish.
Lost among the throng, I spent an hour searching for my riad — without success. After being chased by a snake charmer,
I decided it was time for a break. I found refuge among the orange juice vendors, selling fresh juice for 4 dirham (about 50 cents) a glass.
By immense luck, I eventually found my guest house a further hour later, hidden in a maze of nameless, tiny alleyways. It felt like I had found my oasis in the desert.
Later that night, I decided to once again face the streets and explore the Jemaa el-Fnaa souk, famous for its night market, where magicians, story-tellers and henna painters are said to emerge after dark.
Outside, I was again assaulted by a barrage of unfamiliar sights and sounds.
Jemaa el-Fnaa was just as lively at night as it was during the day, if not more so. The smell of mouth-watering, authentic Moroccan cuisine wafted out from the line of food stalls in the middle of the souk.
Under a cloud of steam, men in white chef coats shoved their menus into my face, trying to lure me into their stalls. I finally gave in to temptation, and was soon gratefully enjoying a dinner of couscous and spiced chicken tagine — all for just 40 dirham.
After all that, I still had to battle my way through the souk to return to my riad, past speeding motorcycles, pushy vendors and catcalls that worsened as the night went on. With tourists crowding the souk at night, speaking over each other in myriad languages, it became particularly difficult to bargain for the nice kaftan dress that caught my eye.
Once again, I lost my way in the souk, trying to find the guest house among the teeming crowds.
The next day, I sought peace in the solitude of the Sahara Desert. I signed up for a two-day excursion to the desert and took a 10-hour ride by minivan to the dunes of Erg Chigaga over the oasis town of Zagora.
The trip was certainly a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of life in Marrakech. Seated by the driver, my eyes wandered over the magnificent natural scenery of the countryside.
As if the scenery was not stimulating enough, I also had the best vantage point for watching our skillful driver, Rasyid, navigate the van through every blind mountain turn, one hand on the steering wheel and the other busy answering calls on his cellphone — it seems he didn’t have a spare hand, or moment, to fasten his seat belt.
As we drove, the view outside switched from dusty fields with palm trees to small villages and finally the stunning panorama of the Atlas Mountains.
It was a mysterious and surreal feeling to watch the gray mountain range unfold as the van climbed higher and higher, right to the top where the landscape plateaued to reveal an area called Col du Tichka — the highest point in the Atlas Mountains at 2,260 meters above sea level.
By the time we reached Zagora, it was almost sunset. Our connecting transport was awaiting us — a herd of camels.
An indigenous Berber man was waiting with a dozen tethered camels ready for us to hop onto their humps.
At first, the ride was uncomfortable and awkward. It was bumpy and hard to tell where you were supposed to put your legs on top of the creature. But after a while, as I relaxed into the rhythm of my camel’s footsteps, it began to feel like a calm and meditative experience.
Soon, no sound could be heard except the plodding of the camels in the desert sand. The sun began to set and the camels’ shadows were elongated on the sand like a painting of a dream.
By the time we reached our Bedouin tents in the middle of the desert, the sun had completely disappeared. The only light came from our tents.
When I looked up, I couldn’t help but gasp at the vast, clear sky filled with millions of bright stars. Every couple of seconds, a shooting star could be seen firing through the sky.
A sense of powerlessness overcame me in the face of such a mighty scene.
But the night was still young and the Berbers were ready with their own entertainment.
Seated by the open fire, the group formed a circle with five Berber men in the middle. There, in their colorful costumes and turbans, the nomad tribesmen sang, accompanied by an infectious rhythm from a tabl (a traditional double-sided drum). A couple of tourists joined in and soon the desert air was filled with joy and laughter.
Despite our many languages, the group was united through the music and kindness we shared for that moment.
I walked back to the tent to go to sleep on a modest blanket. Away from civilization, with the only sound being sand swept by desert wind, I had the best sleep of my life.