Moroc & Rollin - A Travel Journal Part 2
Morocco day 3 began with an early morning alarm. Allie and I were up with the sun as we quietly got dressed, ate breakfast, and psyched ourselves to get sky high…. in a hot air balloon, that is. We’d somehow gotten the idea in our head a few days prior and totally lucked out that one company had two openings for our oh-so dreamy early morning ride. It’s sort of hilarious that we even entertained the hot air balloon idea at all. We’re two of the most thrifty travelers I know, and let’s just say hot air balloons are not cheap by our standards. Either way, we did the damn thing and without blinking an eye. I think I am a changed traveler.
At 8 am, the company’s hostel pick up service was a nice perk, and the drive was a beautiful one, too. We chased the first rays of morning sunlight into the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Hot air balloons were silhouetted in the distance, the blue and yellow sky setting the mountains aglow. Once we’d made it to the outskirts of the city, our 4x4 took an off-road detour, sending the backseat passengers flying in the air and smashing into the roof of the car.
Allie and I did our fair share of sliding and smacking into the hood while our driver gassed it over dirt hills and laughed at his lopsided passengers. Eventually, we arrived to what I’m going to call our base tent, albeit a bit disoriented and motion sick. Our car was the last one there- of course- so the two of us wasted no time snapping pictures and fixing ourselves some coffee for the morning hour.
Before long, everyone was being loaded back into vans and taxied into deeper depths of the barren desert land. Oddly enough, after veering off the road into a dirt field, our caravan of cars got lost. I was confused, as it seemed near impossible to get lost on a roadless, open field. After all, it wasn’t like it was difficult to see our balloon in the distance. We learned that the drivers actually have to locate the hot air balloon each time it lands, which is a task in itself given that it lands somewhere new every single time.
After a few three point turns on the rolling fields (still have questions about the logic of that one..), we finally located our balloon, and somehow, Allie and I were the last ones in line again. As I looked around, I realized everyone was dressed for adventure, meanwhile, I was wearing…. a silk skirt. Really, really solid move there, Syd. Knowing what must be done, I then proceeded to straddle the chest-high basket in my calf length skirt, and if you’re wondering how that went- well, it didn’t. Somehow I made it in, but it was a fight until the brutal end. The one great thing about being the last two passengers in the 16 person basket was that we got the two corner spots, which provided immaculate views once we were hovering above ground. The downside was that I’m pretty sure I flashed everyone.
We were introduced to our pilot after we took off, which depending on how you look at things, is absolutely horrifying. As it turned out, our fearless female leader was a Russian with lots of jokes about our basket’s malfunctioning trap doors and our individual parachute landings. And, on top of that, she was like, some sort of international hot air balloon racing champion. Because apparently they have those.
Down below, our drivers furiously trailed after us like little ants, taking no care of the lack of roads. From above, hot air balloon views look and feel a lot like the views from an airplane, except you’re scared to hold your phone or camera over the edge. It’s also surprisingly hot, which was the opposite of what Allie and I had prepared for. We thought we were being smart taking into account the different atmospheric temperatures, when in reality, we were being scorched by the fire above our head in our layers of puffy clothing. Halfway through our ride, our pilot passed around a fancy platter of chocolate (what??!), which wound up being the content of mine and Allie’s most miserably awful food picture of the entire trip. We laughed about the ugly snap and took some other redeeming ones until it was time to make our grand landing.
Speaking of, I’d always wondered how hot air balloons land. I can now safely say I was better off not knowing. Our pilot had originally scouted out a good landing spot, but the crew on the ground redirected her to find another one. From above, landing spot #1 looked a bit rocky and like there were a few dead branches littering the ground. It was a wide open field, but sure, we could probably find something a little less dicey. I assume the wind must have picked up or something, because after passing up on the first option, finding a new landing spot seemed increasingly urgent.
Pretty soon, it became apparent that we’d found a new landing spot. Our balloon creeped closer and closer to the barren land, and to my horror, I realized our fat, unwieldy beast of a hot air ballon was going to land between two very sturdy looking fences. To the right was a barbed wire fence and a mangled Eucalyptus tree straight out of an apocalyptic movie. To the left was a straight up brick wall that towered over the legitimate village behind it. All in all, it was probably about 50 feet of landing space, and that’s a very generous estimate.
The entire population of the village had gathered outside to watch the horrifying spectacle. I’m laughing in denial, trying to find an explanation as to HOW this spot is even 1/4 as good as our old one while our pilot instructs us to grab onto the loopholes of the basket tightly and bend our knees. No sooner had we all done as told did the entire basket proceeded to smash through the entire top half of the eucalyptus tree. The sweet scent of eucalyptus masked the smell of certain death, and I found myself swatting branches during the .002 seconds of our collision. Inevitably, the haus of a basket won, and upper half of the the tree came crumbling down like it’d been slayed by lightning or some other extraordinary feat of nature.
Having legitimately just gone through an ancient tree, our landing was only slightly less rough. When we made contact with the dirt, we all slung around the basket, at first 45 degrees to the left, and then back to the ground with a grand thud. The only problem was that our balloon was still attached and the wind was ever present, so we had rough landing after rough landing as our basket was dragged along the long rocky runway.
Eventually, the crew got the balloon under control and we were finally stationary on the ground. The locals were just absolutely traumatized and enticed all at once. Kids gathered around the basket to greet the sky intruders, which was actually really funny. After doing another ugly basket dismount in my skirt, Allie and I loaded back up into the vans and headed back to the base tent.
Moral of the story: hot air ballon rides are kind of overrated, except for their landings, which should not be given the courtesy of a rating at all. Unless you’re into tree vandalism and whiplash, in which case, I would 10/10 recommend.
Back at the base tent, our traditional breakfast appeared to be pita bread, Moroccan pancakes (basically deliciously fancy tortillas), olives, and an assortment of jams and spreads. I fixed up my favorite Moroccan pancakes, lathered them in honey and sipped on some delightful mint tea.
The remainder of the morning was to be spent riding camels, which quite frankly neither Allie or I had any interest in partaking in. We begrudgingly decided to tag along to the camel post and snap some pictures against our better judgement to hail a cab home. The pictures ended up being totally worth it, but my body completely rejected the idea of camels whenever I got too close. I kept my distance (and thankfully the camels kept theirs) and all was well in the end.
The family we’d been riding with all morning to and from our excursions were really friendly, and they gave us some phenomenal suggestions for things to do for the remainder of the day. Once we were back in the Marrakech medina, we got directions to locale #1- the spice market- from our hostel homie Yousef and then pepped ourselves up for the ultimate struggle that shall henceforth be known as following directions on a map.
By absolute divine intervention, Allie and I somehow managed to locate the spice market, although by nothing more than a series of accidentally lucky wrong turns. We’d gotten so wrapped up in shopping along the way that we’d entirely turned ourselves around. At some point, we stopped to buy beautiful vintage looking postcards, and only after paying did we notice signs along a corridor pointing to the spice market. Well, well, well. If I ain’t good with directions after all.
Similar to the main square in terms of vendors, the spice market differed in its smaller size and textile and spice focus. I think my favorite pictures and Morocco memories were in this little haven. Rugs were draped from balconies and rooftops, and higher end merchants occupied the stores along the side. Iguanas and turtles were on display (an upgrade from the cobras and the monkeys in Jemaa el-Fnaa square if you ask me) and bright bowls and barrels of spices lined the edges.
Allie and I inevitably found ourselves in a vintage and handmade jewelry store and got possessed by two rowdy shopping demons, which, as I am reflecting on it now, seemed to happen pretty routinely. We originally stopped in to buy Allie a journal, and both came out with some sterling silver garbage of varying degrees. I say garbage as affectionately as possible- our new bling was beautiful, it’s just that we lack all human restraint when presented with cute trinkets. In all seriousness, our experience in this jewelry store was so incredible that I would advise anyone who’s visiting Morocco to stop by. The owner was so attentive and knowledgable about all of his pieces, and he even threw in a free thank you gift after our heartfelt and enjoyable exchange.
After we’d taken advantage of our lunch spot’s free wifi and mapped out directions to our next destination, the Jardin Secret, we were back on the tourist prowl, weaving our way in and out of market stalls and escaping eye contact with the salesmen on their hustle. After failing at following our directions two minutes into our trek yet again, we decided we’d ask directions from the same salesmen we’d been avoiding and see where it’d take us. I’d say all in all, we pretty successfully followed the directions of the locals, although I’m not convinced we took the most direct route. We somehow wandered inside what felt like the heart of the market into the leather shops where cobblers and tanneries were in abundance. It was extremely, extremely cool… just also extremely, extremely smelly. Part of me felt it was a shame that the hoards of tourists back in the square were missing out, but I also sort of loved being one of the curious few who’d made it into what I felt was the crown jewel of Marrakech’s medina.
Finally at Jardin Secret, Allie and I whipped out our student IDs for that sweet sweet student discount (travel hack #917482). As soon as we stepped foot inside the actual gardens, I think we both knew that it was going to be the highlight of our day. I don’t think words or pictures would do the architecture and botany of the gardens justice. Little tile pathways disappeared into dense shrubbery; cactuses were intermixed with delicate flowers; the inset water ducts dead-ended into an intricate pavilion where people lounged blissfully. The only downside was that it was a total death trap for clumsy people like me because your mind would wander aimlessly at the surrounding beauty… not to the narrow water filled death trap trench beneath you.
In every way, the gardens felt like a preserved slice of ancient history. Perhaps like a movie set, even. In the front corner of the main garden square was a little cafe. Allie and I treated ourselves to a cappuccino and lounged in the shade of a lemon tree, admiring our new silver jewelry and the flora around us. If there ever was a moment where I peaked in life, this was it.
Ironically, while we were (shamelessly) taking pictures at the Jardin Secret, we bumped into Jacqi and Danny who had just happened to stumble into the gardens while we were visiting. We stuck together for the rest of the afternoon, making plans to watch the sunset from one of Marrakech’s top rated rooftop cafes. On our walk back to the main Jemaa el-Fnaa square, we passed by merchant after merchant, until lo and behold, we passed a rug merchant and I feasted my eyes upon *THE* rug hanging from their awning.
Somehow, before I knew what was happening, I was in the top floor of this rug shop with the rug from outside splayed out at my feet. With it in perfect view in front of me, I realized that my dream rug was not the dream size for my tiny New York bedroom, and after asking the cost, the 4,000 Dirham price tag felt a biiiiit more of a nightmare. But the same shopping demons from earlier had reentered my body, and smaller rug after smaller rug was hurtled onto the rug before it. After exhausting the merchants with my request to find a smaller handmade Berber rug as beautiful as the first, the stacks upon stacks of textiles around me were in disarray and the rug at the very bottom of the pile was still leagues ahead of the others. “Let’s just make a deal on the first one,” the very worn out salesman offered. And make a deal, I did. I had no idea if this rug was going to fit into my room or if it would fit in my suitcase, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get the 1,700 Dirham deal of a century on the world’s most beautiful handmade work of art.
The unplanned rug excursion (and the ATM fiasco that followed) set our sunset dinner and drinks plan back. We hustled through the hoards of people, b-lining to this rooftop bar the best a few navigationally challenged people could. We snagged one of the last tables on the roof and ate, drank, and gave a cheers to our last night in Morocco. And all in perfect time for sunset, too. Portugal was next, and oh boy, what a time that was.