Monday, 11:45 AM
We were strolling through dirt paths lined with crumbling buildings. Two blonde girls with rolling suitcases and looks of panic steadily washing over our pale faces. We stuck out like soccer moms at an ecstasy-fueled rave.
The piercing glances and sexualized heckles bore into our souls. We continued walking, with no clear direction, because what else could we do?
“Riad Atlas,” we heard a voice shout. My head spun around to find a man beaming his welcoming smile at us. He was small, but older than we were. He was dressed in jeans, unlike many of the others sporting long robes and turbans.
“Yes,” I said, hesitantly, knowing that was the name of the hostel we were looking for, but unsure if I should put my trust in this man who seemed to know exactly who we were.
We began following him down a winding dirt path, away from the main road and even further away from our comfort zone, because what else could we do?
We finally arrived at a door. Waiting on the other side was a lobby, of sorts. Floors crafted out of mosaic tiles and an eclectic group of couches, pillows, chairs and lamps situated around the room that was bathed in sunlight.
We plopped down on the two chairs nearest the man, who had set up shop with a Mac computer in the corner of the room. I assumed this was when we would check in and go to our room.
I was wrong.
Immediately upon sitting we were offered two cups of tea. “You want sugar? Of course you want sugar,” the man said with a laugh and a grimace that was, somehow, simultaneously comforting and concerning.
I took a sip of the tea, more wary of the typhoid carrying bacteria I had previously read about than I was the scalding temperature of the beverage that would soon become a staple on our trip.
I glanced up at the man, who had finished his tea already. I then glanced over at Grace, who appeared just as concerned as I felt.
“So, you will not stay here tonight, you will stay down the road and come here in the morning.”
“What do you mean, isn’t this the Riad Atlas?”
“Yes, but construction, you stay down the road tonight, come here tomorrow, have your breakfast and then you will stay.”
“What about our friends?”
“They will stay down the road, come here tomorrow, you will have your breakfast and then you will stay.”
This back and forth interaction continued for a while, but eventually it was clear: we wouldn’t be staying in the hostel we had paid for, at least for the first night.
The three of us and the chef at the hostel sat in a bewildered silence for a few moments, before the man assured us that we would leave for the new hostel as soon as we finished our tea.
The man, whose name I soon learned was Rashid, led us down the same path we’d encountered him on. We ducked under archways lined with handbags, tan men begging us to buy them.
We stood against the pink building to make way for the donkeys strolling down the path, wheelbarrows filled with more merchandise attached to their backs.
We passed stores, restaurants and people. So many people. And then we arrived at the Madrassa.
The Madrassa appeared to be owned by a friend of Rashid’s. They seemed to have had this whole “thing,” for lack of a better word, set up before we arrived.
We hesitantly strolled up to the door, realizing we had just been taking this man’s word for what could very well turn out to be just the kind of situation we were warned about before arriving in northern Africa.
The door was opened by a short man wearing a black t-shirt and dusty blue jeans. He smiled, but not as wide as Rashid did.
The main room was in my direct line of vision. It was filled with upside down furniture and a sort of make-shift office.
“Storage room,” the man said in my direction after noticing my worried stares. To this day, I’m not totally sure that was a correct statement, as that’s also where we ate breakfast the following day.
Grace and I were finally alone in an unventilated room with eight beds, each covered with a leopard-print, fleece blanket and a less-than-desirable flat pillow. We burst out in a series of uncontrollable laughter.
“I just, I don’t know, he’s just, he’s so….nice,” we mustered out through belly-aching chuckles.
And he was. Rashid was so nice. Before he left, we were given an extensive tour of the hostel, a drawn out map of Marrakech and his phone number.
“Call me, text me, wherever you are. I will find you and come help you.”
I believed him. I genuinely believed if I said his name loud enough he would just… appear.
About 30 minutes later, our other four friends arrived— each with the same dumbfounded look on their faces. They had experienced the exact same journey to the hostel that we had.
“We came here willingly?” Jenn joked.
We laughed again. And then we decided it was time to explore the city.
Snake charmers, monkeys, henna tattoo artists, Muslim prayer calls— you name it, we saw it.
A few of us got juices from a cart, we each downed a bottle of water in an attempt to bear the stifling heat from the afternoon sun and, eventually, we found ourselves at a Mosque.
All six of us attempted to enter, as we had heard this particular mosque was a popular tourist attraction. We were denied entry by another man who we later, once again, probably put a little too much trust in.
He assured us he wouldn’t charge us, but instead wanted to give us helpful information about Morocco.
“Don’t drink the juices from the carts, the fruit is washed with water that is bad for you.” Those of us who had already had a juice exchanged nervous glances.
“You should go to the Argon Oil factory. You can see the women make it and they won’t charge you anything, I can take you there now.”
After a quick pow-wow, we decided to go.
“I will walk you to the door and then leave you there, it is only a two minute walk, I promise,” the man from the Mosque explained, picking up on our uncertainty about following another man down yet another unknown path.
And he was right. After a short walk, we arrived at the factory and he left us there.
We spent the afternoon there, smelling oils, getting massages and, ultimately, buying a lot of products guaranteed to transform our skin.
After a harrowing journey back to our hostel, we all settled in for a nap in our humid room, which was frequently interrupted by the prayer calls and noises from the other dwellers of the Madrassa.
We woke up and headed out for dinner at a rooftop cafe, where I ingested the best mushroom risotto of my life.
We spent hours admiring the Moroccan sunset and reminiscing on our adventure of a Monday. We unanimously agreed it wasn’t the spring break we had planned, but we were glad to be there.
There’s no drinking in Marrakech, so it was time for bed.
Katie walked into our room first, and immediately walked back out.
I popped my head in to see what had dissuaded her to find a semi-nude german man and his female lover, or sister, or friend— we never found out.
“You can come in,” he said.
As we all settled in for what would turn out to be a restless night’s sleep, the woman got up.
“Is it okay if I turn this off?” We all said yes, assuming she meant the light.
She didn’t. She meant the fan. She wanted to turn off the fan. In Africa. In a room that could easily be mistaken for a sauna.
“I hope I don’t sleep walk tonight,” the man muttered.
“I do that, I sleep walk. And I kill people,” he added. We hoped he was joking.
Tuesday, 6:00 AM
We are awoken by the first prayer call of the day.
The German couple leaves the room. Loudly.
We all start coming out of our haze of sleep and heat exhaustion.
“Did anyone else see the monkey?” Katie asked.
No, we hadn’t. But, according to Katie, during the night a monkey had been sitting in our room. Now we could add rabies to our list of possible diseases contracted during our short stay.
We headed downstairs for breakfast: three pieces of bread, yogurt, butter, juice and tea.
Safe to say we were never short on carbs.
The man who owned the Madrassa, still clad in his black t-shirt and dusty jeans, agreed to lead us back to Rashid’s hostel.
Back down the winding paths we went. When we knocked on Rashid’s door, he was dressed in full robes and a turban— a change from his casual wardrobe on Monday.
“Hello!” He showed us our room, an undebatable upgrade from the previous night.
We settled in, charged our phones and headed back down the staircase to embark on the camel ride we had set up with Rashid the day before.
Rashid took us back down the path. We were dressed a bit more “traditional Moroccan” than the day before, but our fair skin and American accents still invited unwanted comments and stares.
We approached a white van. A man in a suit was waiting for us.
“He will take you to your camel ride,” Rashid told us.
“In 10 years when we’re on the Today Show explaining the moment we knew we were being sold into sex trafficking, it’s now,” I semi-joked to the group.
We rode in the carpet-lined van for about 20 minutes. We came to a stop at the boundary between the city an the Sahara Desert— a stretch of land enveloped by palm trees and dilapidated homes.
Six camels were waiting for us. We hopped on.
After several cups of tea, three cheese pastillas and one long sit to let our sore legs adjust to being off the camel, we headed to the spa— something Morocco is known a for.
We had a standard spa package set up: 45 minutes in the Hammam and a 30 minute massage.
It should be noted that we were under the impression that the Hammam was basically a big steam room. We were wrong.
The six of us were instructed to take off everything excepted for our thongs. We were led into a dimly-lit steam room with two sections, a bench in each.
I was first in line. A heavy-set Moroccan woman sat me down and immediately doused me with lukewarm bucket of water.
We were scrubbed until our skin was raw. We were massaged with oils that made caused difficulty in sitting without slipping. Our hair was washed and braided.
In short, we were bathed. Aggressively bathed.
Clean and relaxed, but still confused as to what exactly happened inside the spa, we headed for dinner.
We spoke about religion and life and Morocco over pizza and salads. We sat for hours, laughing and learning.
Wednesday, 3:00 AM
Grace and I headed down to the main floor of the Riad Atlas to meet the taxi driver who would take us to the airport. Unsurprisingly, the chef appeared in a robe with a full breakfast prepared for each of us.
At this point, nothing shocked us.
We fly out.
Morocco is a place filled with generous people and wonderful food. It’s encompassed in vibrant colors and enchanting smells and just about everything else imaginable.
It’s a place unlike anything we had previously experienced. If we’d been moved to a different hostel with little explanation in any other country, we would have talked about refunds, other options. Not here, it’s just how things are done.
Would I go back? Sure. When I have plenty of money to stay in a resort and I know exactly what I’m getting into.
Am I glad I went and did it the way we did? Absolutely.