First, I noticed the doors.
I took a bus from Menara airport to Djemaa El-Fna, a large square in the heart of Marrakech’s old city. The bus swerved through a sea of motorized bikes, past flat stretches of fanned palms and arches marking unlit alleys. On the sidewalk I counted more feral cats than I’ve ever seen, and on the rooftops I caught glimpses of oversized nests and tall, toothpick-legged cranes.
We zigzagged between buildings the colors of rust, orange-pink and off white, with unpainted brick exposed on the sides. Elaborate grates decorated the arched windows. The Arabic tile was all geometric shapes and primary colors: chaos and balance. But the doors.
The doors were painted turquoise, seafoam green, red. Some were patterned with raised studs, others with thin scrolls or contrasting diamonds. As the bus sped towards the center square, the doors become vivid blurs against the burnt orange skyline.
(Click thumbnails for full-sized photos!)
Night fell by the time my friends and I arrived at our riad, which was tucked in the maze of side streets of a residential neighborhood. We turned a few corners, walked through a children’s game of football, and found the right alleyway. I saw a door marked 18, just like our directions said, so I pushed it open and the six of us walked inside, backpacks and all.
Inside I saw richly threaded pillows, candles flickering through the cut-outs of metal tins, and… a family of four eating dinner? The woman herded us out of her living room, back into the alley, and pointed further down. Wrong door marked 18. I’d been in Morocco for an hour, and I’d managed to walk into a stranger’s home.
We found the right door, knocked first, and settled into our riad.
We sat in the lounge and planned out our trip over a pot of mint tea – a super sweet drink consumed in tiny, steaming cups. The riad offered a two day excursion into the Sahara desert. We argued amongst ourselves before realizing we couldn’t travel this close to the Sahara without going in. As we came to the decision, I felt a raindrop, and looked up through the open roof as the sky began pouring.
I woke up early for the excursion. I showered on the rooftop terrace, under the starlit sky, and listened to the roosters crow just as my hot water ran out.
We loaded into a van – our home for the next two days. We drove out of the city, around crumbling red mountains and over rocky cliffs, past cacti dripping with ruby fruit. We stopped at villages along the way, where I haggled for silver bracelets and drank an Arabic coke.
By sundown we’d reached the edge of the desert, where we mounted our camels and rode into the Sahara. Here’s what I’ve learned about camels: I don’t like them. Mine was too tall, too fat, a little bow-legged, and very fond of spitting. I also managed to get the camel with the sassiest hips, and when I dismounted two hours later, I felt every ounce of that sass in my aching legs. Can a camel look smug? I think so.
But we set up our tents and ate vegetable tagines for dinner. We danced around the campfire and sang to each other. The sand, cool as the night air and finer than sugar, slipped through my fingers like silk. I stayed outside as long as I could, listening to the camels gossip, looking up at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, until I woke up to a glorious sunrise edging over the dunes.
(For the record, the camel ride back in the morning is worse.)
We drove back through the snow capped Atlas Mountains, and seven hours later, returned to Marrakech. That night I explored Djemaa El-Fna, a square full of snake charmers, henna artists, and monkeys with chains around their necks. The night market offers heaped spices, fresh orange juice, and bin after bin of roasted nuts. I devoured dried apricots, figs, and dates by the handful.
In the morning, Marrakech experienced a torrential downpour. My friends and I picked that morning to visit the Majorelle Gardens, and by the time we walked there, my socks squelched. But thanks to the rain, we were the only visitors to the garden, and the sight of thick palms, lilies in still ponds, and a forest of bamboo moved the rain to the back of my mind.
With two hours left in the country, I fell in love with the Souks, Marrakech’s mazelike market. The stalls sell everything from slippers and earrings to glazed pottery and gunpowder tea. The market only has a few entrances, and the knot of alleys and streets of stalls were impossible to navigate. For about twenty minutes, thoroughly lost in the heart of the Souks, I thought, “There’s no way I’m making my flight back.”
Now I’m back in Seattle, my semester abroad finished. I’ve seen my old friends and had family dinner, and I’m happy to be home. But a little part of me misses standing ankle deep in sand, scowling at my camel. The weight of lifting the lid of a tagine pot. I probably won’t stop missing the crumbling archways, the brilliant fabrics, the thrill of feeling completely foreign – until my next trip to Marrakech.