A Visit to the Zoo

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I’m not a big fan of Zoos because I find them extremely sad, unless they’re rehabilitation zoos where the animals will eventually be put back into the wild or zoos where the animals are there because they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own.  However, the zoo of Jerez is neither of these.  As brought to my attention and taken from their website “The uniqueness and importance of the collection lies in the large number of endangered species which houses. In this sense develops a series of playback in coordination with Europe’s major Zoos. These projects, called EEPs, based its actions to achieve viable populations with a view to their future reintroduction into their natural habitats. The Zoo is currently involved in more than twenty-five projects EEPs. We also participated in a large number of projects (Studbooks) ESB.”

In the region of Spain where the crisis is still felt and youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the EU, you can imagine the conditions of the animals if the people are struggling to live in the city where that zoo is.  The area of the zoo is gorgeous because it is also a botanical garden; in a city that lacks parks, the zoo is the most beautiful and greenist area in Jerez.  Perhaps to distract you from the conditions of the animals.  The spaces provided doesn’t make sense with some being far too small for the animals sizes.  For example, they have a bird row with great birds of prey, like different types of eagles and vultures in cages that are no bigger than my bedroom, they have no room to fly and can’t, but this small colorful bird has a huge area. The lions are in a cage no bigger than my living room, but the Iberian lynx has an area ten times that.  The hippos have a water section only slightly bigger than their size lengthwise.  A lot of monkeys are crammed into areas with hardly any room to jump around, to swing and to play. Above all, the animals that have hair seemed to be losing it in patches, they didn’t look all that healthy. It’s sad, but in a city where a family might only be making 1,000 euro a month, change is a long way from coming.

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A Quick Trip to London

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When I first came to Europe three years ago, London was never high on my list and it wasn’t even on it for some time. However with the impending realization that I’ll be leaving Europe at the end of this school year, I began to think that I needed to go, to experience it and to see it. Maybe it goes back to my colonial routes of rejecting the crown, or maybe because I was annoyed that in the English world of Spain everything is British, from the accent and grammar they speak, to the flags and decorations they have around the classroom, or perhaps I was drawn more to different cities like Prague, Budapest and Vienna. Whatever the case was, I have friends in London and I wanted to go while they were still there. A week and a half ago we had a puente/long weekend because of the Féria, so I left for London on Thursday and came back to Jerez on Sunday.

I was really impressed by London, but even more so by the people.  Every interaction I had, whether it was asking for help in the underground, or asking for directions above ground, talking to people on the train, to the staff in a restaurant/bar or to the workers on the ferry, was positive.  It’s left me wondering if everybody in London is that nice or maybe I caught the right people in the right moment of their day.

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It is the people that make up a city, but without buildings and spaces their would be no city, and the buildings and spaces of London really impressed me. It’s a beautiful city that feels as if it’s five cities in one, different buildings juxtapose each other one after the other. Walking along the bank of the Thames you can find the Neo-gothical Big Ben, across the modern London Eye, further along there are various bridges all ranging in different styles from the modern millennium bridge to the iconic gothic revival Tower Bridge; across from the tower bridge on one side of the Thames is the castle of London flanked by skyscrapers; the shard, the walkie-talkie and the gherkin. Each is a unique, individual building that represent the every changing architectural landscape of London.

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I enjoy traveling alone, but having the opportunity to visit friends is also something I enjoy. I stayed with my friend Aoife, who is the best friend of my friend Niamh, who was one of my roommates in Costa Rica and who I spent Christmas with in Ireland three years ago. My other friend is Mike, a friend from Delaware who I did habitat for humanity with spring break sophomore year. He’s living in London and when he took a trip to Andalusia last year he stopped by Jerez and we had lunch together. Aoife was a great host and luckily I was able to combine those two worlds. Friday night Aoife, a friend of hers and me had plans to eat at a steak restaurant, called Flat Iron; 10£ for an amzing steak. It’s the only dish on their menu. It’s located  in the Williamsburg of London, coincidentally right around the block from where Mike lives, so we put our names down and then met with him at his place for about an hour and a half. Once your number is called you have 15 minutes to get there or they give your seat up. It was amazing, one of the best meals in recent memory and it was affordable, cheap for a city like London (but still a lot more than what I’d pay in Jerez). After dinner we met up with Mike and his friends and we went to a divey, but awesome Jazz bar. Hearing something other than live Flamenco Music was nice for a change.

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Saturday we went to Greenwich.  I realized while walking around the Royal Navy College that I had learned about it in one of my architecture classes. While traveling I often stumble upon something that I’ve learned about, not knowing it is where I am and every time a wave of excitement passes over me.  Also in Greenwich is the famous Cutty Sark ship, which up until that point I knew only as a cheap whisky in Spain. I had no idea it was an actual ship.  We also stopped by a cute little craft market with food trucks. For lunch I ate Ethiopian food for the first time. We also went to the oldest pub in Greenwich and one of the oldest in London, the Plume of Feathers. It was established in 1691 and is just outside the touristy part of the city, it’s cozy and friendly, the perfect place to hang out in winter. It was also the first time I saw a pump tap, I don’t know if that’s the proper term, but it was like a lever that the bartender had to pull toward her a few times to fill up the pint. Later that day, Mike and his girlfriend and a friend of Aoife came over to her place and Aoife as the gracious host made a delicious dinner. We hung out and played a board game, ending my time in London.

One thing I was extremely disappointed about was the Natural History Museum. People kept telling me how great it is, how you need to go and even one of the Night at the Museums was filmed there. I expected a lot and it didn’t live up to it. The building is beautiful and when you go inside there’s a glowing orb that you take an escalator through, but that’s where the excitement ends. The rooms were cramped and to me seemed poorly designed, the exhibitions were outdated and have probably been there since the museum opened, all the interactive displays seemed as if they were going to fall apart in need of a new coat of paint, and the displays were dirty and dusty. I remember looking at one of the worlds largest cut diamonds and being amazed at the large smudge over it. The dinosaur skeletons were awesome, but the room they were in didn’t allow you to appreciate them. Maybe I’m just not used to history museums.

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I was however impressed by the Victoria and Albert which is right across from the Natural History museum and the Saatchi Gallery, which, with the exhibitions they had, might be one of the best galleries I’ve ever visited. One of the rooms, about the size of a 5 lane gym swimming pool had projections on each of its walls of  thousands of  YouTube videos of people explaining something simultaneously playing. From afar the wall looked like a bunch of little boxes of color, but as you got closer you can see the people’s faces and when you’re right in front of it you can focus on one individual box or person. At the same time the sound of all those videos together was constantly playing in the background creating a very unique feeling as if you’re in a crowd. In the gallery my favorite pieces were created by Daniel Rozin. He had two interactive works that moved according to your position in front of it. They were really fun and I spent 20 or 30 minutes interacting with them.  If you go, make sure to not confuse the Saatchi & Saatchi with the Saatchi Gallery, they’re two distinct places.

The Weekend of Many First

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Last weekend I did many things for the first time, we had a puente, long weekend and each day I did something new.  Normally if I’m not traveling or trying to save money I end up doing nothing, so this past weekend was a really good one.

My first new experience: Visiting a bodega in Jerez.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry and over the last two years I have consumed liters of sherry, but until Saturday I have never visited a bodega here.  Bodegas are where they produce and create the wine, which is a little different from the term bodega back home.  Saturday morning at 11am Jamie and I toured the Lustau bodega.  Lustau was founded in 1896 and today it is considered one of the worlds best wineries ranking 7th worldwide in 2012.

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My second experience: Biking the Via Verde.  Vias Verdes are greenway cycling/walking routes located throughout Spain.  In 1993 the Vias Verde plan was introduced to turn more than 6,000km of abandoned railway lines into environmental friendly tourism within rural areas.  So far it has been a success and the route my friend Miriam and I did on Sunday is considered the most beautiful, it was voted the best Greenway in Europe in 2009.  It’s located in the mountains of Cadiz and is a 36.5km path connecting the towns of Puerto Serrano and Olvera.  We only road to about the halfway point at 15km and even if we wanted to we couldn’t have gone further.  About 1km from the halfway point in the middle of a kilometer long tunnel my front tire went flat.  Luckily we weren’t far and only had to walk a short distance, once there I was able to get it repaired.  There’s a bike rental place along with a playground and restaurant there. I was worried it wasn’t going to hold the whole way back (to walk 15km takes about 4 hours), but it did and it even got me to and from school today.

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My third experience: Visiting Setenil. Setenil is a place I have wanted to go to for a long time now, we were suppose to go in December, but a couple of days before it fell through.  Five months later, with no school on Monday I had a second chance! Jose, Jamie, James and I made the trip to the town under rocks.  Setenil is a very small town (pop 3,000) located about an hour and a half from Jerez.  Historically it played an important role as a line of defense for the Muslims region of Granada against the Christian north, its watch tower, dating back to the 12th century is one of many that dot the region.  However, people don’t go to see the watch tower, they go to see the buildings tucked into the rocky cliff face.

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There’s Blue and Green to be found in Morocco

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A visit to Morocco isn’t complete without visiting the blue city of Chefchauoen.  Chauoen as the locals call it is located in the north of Morocco and it is situated in the Riff Mountains.  Legend has it that it used to be white, but during the summer months nobody could see because of the glare, so they painted it blue and every year since then the women of the city maintain its apperance.  Visiting Chauoen was like going on vacation, nobody in the streets bothered you, nobody hassled you and you were free to take pictures of whatever you want. As touristy as it is, it’s an anomaly, the black sheep of Morocco where the shop keepers have somehow made a pact to not bother tourists.  The few to break this promise are the drug dealers scattered throughout the city, hiding in dark alleyways.  It’s as if their perceived notion of where a drug dealer should be found and how they’re suppose to act comes from those they’ve seen in films.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they use them as their training manual.

Aside from the occasional drug dealer asking you if you want something, Chauoen is a beautifully relaxing city.  It is also where I had my first hammam experience.  A hammam is like a Turkish bath where Moroccans ritually go to cleanse themselves about once a week.  There are the touristy hammams and the traditional ones.  With Kevin and Ryan (I mentioned they were with my until the end) we went traditional.  Before you go, you need to make sure you bring the essential items which include a swimsuit or an extra pair of underwear, a hammam glove (used to scrap away the dead skin), and soap, once you have all those you are ready to go.  The one we went to consisted of three different steam rooms of varying temperatures.  The first step is to make your way to the hottest, sit or lay on the floor while you poor hot water over your body. Once you have sufficiently opened your pores, you use your hammam glove to scrape off the dead skin, you need to ask your friends or if your alone, an old Moroccan guy to help you get your back.  After you have successfully removed the dead skin (it should feel like you’re missing your epidermis), you make your way to a cooler room where you apply soap and let it sit for a few minutes.  Once a few minutes pass you dump buckets of water on yourself to wash it off.  After that you’re pretty much finished, you can lounge around and relax for however long you can stand the heat, or for a couple extra euros you can have a “massage” by the attendant (these are known to be vigorously rough) or you can leave.  By the end you’ll feel like a newborn baby and if there wasn’t a breeze before you went in there will be one after.  Aside from purging the dead skin from your body it’s a great way to relax and to disconnect.

Not far from Chauoen is the town of Akchour where you can do a two hour hike through a beautiful green landscape you wouldn’t know existed in Morocco to a 100m waterfall.

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When In….Morocco?

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Do as the Romans do?

Rome’s empire seems to have had no limit, no matter where you go in Europe you can be assured that there are probably Roman ruins nearby, but I never thought I’d find them in Africa.  So when I heard of the Roman city Volubilis not far from Fes, I had to go.  Getting there was interesting and consisted of a taxi to the train station, a taxi to another taxi station, a taxi to the city near Volubilis called Moulay Idriss and then about a 5 km walk to the Roman city.

First, here is a little bit of information on the Morocco taxi system.  As far as I experienced there are four different types of taxis, a petit taxi that will only take you somewhere if they are heading in that direction and will pick up others along the way (this is what I took to the train station and from the train station to the other taxi station), a normal taxi which are expensive (I didn’t take one of these), a grand taxi (which is what I took from the desert to Fes) and a bus taxi, in which individual people pay to go to the same destination.  There is always a sense of accomplishment in figuring out how to get somewhere in a foreign country and getting to Volubilis is up there on my list of things I am proud of.  Getting to the train station and getting on the train was easy enough. The train was suppose to leave at 10:49 and didn’t leave until 11:10, meanwhile people arrived sauntering toward the train like they were on time.  After arriving to Meknis (the first stop) I then thought I had to find a taxi to Moulay Idriss (the city near Volubilis), however the taxi drivers only wanted to take me to Volubilis for an absurd amount of money.  Finally after asking the 5th or 6th driver he kindly told me that I needed to take a taxi to the bus taxi station within Meknis. From there I could take a bus taxi to Moulay Idriss. I did just that and once in Moulay Idriss  I walked the 45 minutes to Volubilis.

The city of Volubilis was more extensive than I imagined and better preserved than I thought. It was like being back in Italy. At the time it was the most remote city in the Roman empire and at its peak is believed to have been home to more than 20,000 residents.  With their wealth generated from olive production Volubilis was home to many grand residences with stunning mosaics that are extremely well preserved,  they alone are worth visiting the city for.

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Going back I tried to hitchhike my way  to the town but nobody wanted to pick me up. However, when I got closer one of the bus taxi drivers stopped and asked me where I was going, I told him Meknis and he said I could go with him, instead of ripping me off he charged me the normal price and nobody was in it. He was without a doubt the nicest taxi driver I met in Morocco and maybe the nicest person from Morocco I met. He dropped me off at the train station for an extra euro and right as I was buying the train ticket a train to Fes arrived so I hopped on it.  It’s as if the stars aligned just to allow me to get back to Fes hassle free.

 

Fascinating Fes

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Like the rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid, I imagine Fes and Marrakech have something along the same lines.  Depending on who you ask it’s one or the other and while I usually try to stay away from comparing cities I have to say that I liked Fes a lot more than Marrakech.  With the one day I spent in Marrakech being sufficient, the three nights on the other hand in Fes didn’t feel like enough.  Maybe my time in Marrakech was like when you first step into an ice cold shower, shocking at first, but slowly you get use to it, so by the time I got to Fes my mind and body were already accustomed to Morroco.  Or maybe, it’s because Fes is just slightly less chaotic and a little more beautiful than Marrakech.  In Fes you could actually walk through the souk without constantly being bombarded and yelled at by the vendors and every time you stopped to take a picture there wasn’t someone coming up to you saying “give me money if you want to take a picture in front of my shop”.  Fes also has two hills on either side of the old town which provide for a nice panorama of the city and the surrounding landscape.  To me, Fes has more to offer.

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After our 9 hour taxi ride we arrived to Fes around 5:30pm.  I didn’t have a hostel because I arrived a day earlier than I thought and the hostel I had booked was full, so I went to the one Kevin and Ryan were staying at.  The hostel called Riad Vinus was the most beautiful hostel I’ve ever stayed in.  It is a converted Moorish townhouse with an almost museum-like interior, intricate wooden sculptures and typical ornate wall carvings decorated the main courtyard.  Unfortunately it lacked bathrooms. Later that night we met up with the two Germans and we all had our first camel burger.

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The next day, I spent the early morning wandering the souk.  Hardly any of the shops were open and I found a tranquility I didn’t think was possible.  Kids were going to school and people were making their way to work.  It was nice to see this aspect of everyday life within the city, to experience the realness and flow of the early morning.  Nobody looked at me like a tourist, nobody tried to take advantage of me, the hustle and bustle that can be found later in the day had not yet started.  Around 9:30am I made my way back to the hostel to have breakfast and to meet Kevin and Ryan.  Ryan had also explored the souk that morning, but had less luck getting back and ended up having to pay a “guide”.  We then made our way to the other hostel I was staying at and after many reroutes and detours we finally found it.  The souks are like a labyrinth and if it were not for Kevin having google maps I don’t think we would have ever found it.  Once I was settled we spent the day exploring Fes, we hiked up to the southern gate, one of the viewpoints of the city, made our way to the tanneries where we experienced one of the most nauseating smells, took a reprieve in the stunning Al Attarine Madrasa, met the Germans and hiked to the northern gate to watch the sunset and then had dinner at a beautiful and delicious restaurant called the Ruined Garden. I’ll have one more day in Fes,  but I’ll spend it taking a day trip to the Roman city of Volubilis.

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Busing Through the Desert

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When traveling the people you meet form a part of the trip as much as the trip itself, for the desert excursion tour nothing could have been more true. 

Day one of the desert tour consisted of 12 hours of traveling, we left Marrakech at 8 in the morning and didn’t arrive to the hotel where we spent the first night until 8pm. The morning started at 6:15 with everyone in the dorm waking, getting ready to head off to their desert excursion meeting points that they had already booked. As I ate breakfast in the lobby I talked with others who had just gotten back from an excursion and more who were leaving for one. Another girl from the US had also booked the tour through the hostel so when it became time to get dropped off at the pick up location we waited while the others got into different vans. Eventually, the hostel guy who didn’t speak English pointed us to a van and with blind faith that they knew what they were doing and somehow kept track of things we put our bags in, joined those who were already in, and waited for the rest.  The group, the people I would spend the next 48 continuous hours with consisted of a girl from the US, Siena, who I sat next to; 2 Canadians from French Quebec who throughout the trip seemed to always find a way to delay us; 4 Germans (2 couples); three Moroccan friends who live in Canada: one with a three and a half year old and one who was a savor (Ahmed) and ended up being a facilitator, translator and co-guide; one South Korean (Candy), who I ended up seeing last week because she was traveling around Andalucía; two Argentinian siblings and two friends from California, Ryan and Kevin who joined us after lunch on the first day and who I’d coincidently be with until the end of my trip.

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Last but not least in any way, the bus driver, who unbeknownst to him brought the rest of us together and made it a very interesting trip. It started when he stopped to get gas and after asking if he could open the door so we could use the bathroom. When we came back Ahmed had a confused look on his face saying I don’t know what is wrong with him. He was talking about the bus driver and apparently he didn’t want anyone leaving, we were only allowed out if he opened the door to allow us out. Ahmed also asked if he could at least know when we were stopping so he could tell the rest of us and the driver said no, when we stop we stop and the door will open.

The second incident happened after the second stop, all of a sudden he pulled over on to the side of the road, one of the Moroccan ladies was yelling, he was yelling and the door was open. With the rest of us having no idea what was happening Ahmed explained to us that she had asked him to put the AC on and he said no. Prior to booking the trip they specifically asked if there was AC and they were told yes of course it was necessary. So for 20 minutes we were stopped on the side of the road, neither of them speaking, their pride causing the rest of us to suffer. All I could think was that this was going to be a loooooong journey, we had only just begun and we were all in it together. Eventually the door closed, we started moving and the AC was put on.  Apparently the driver couldn’t put the AC on because the incline of the road was too great, the engine had to work to hard and if the AC was on it could have blew, however he didn’t explain this when she asked,  he just only said no.

The third incident, happened after our stop at Ait Ben Haddou. Ait Ben Haddou is a 700 year old Berber settlement located on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains that has been made famous by films such as Gladiator, The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and (not a film) Game of Thrones.  The French Quebecs decided they didn’t want to climb through the city so they took an alternative route. When it was time to leave they were no where to be found, we spent about 45 minutes waiting on the bus until they were finally found them. When they arrived the bus driver (who also spoke French) started yelling at them, they started yelling back and then he stopped the car saying they could leave if they wanted. They opened the door getting ready to get out, I’m not sure what they planned on doing because we were 6.5 hours from Marrakech, but fortunately Ahmed stepped in and diffused the situation. Unfortunately for the French Quebecs they were seated next to the driver and had to spend the rest of the trip in close proximity.

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After incident three we made our way to Ouarzazate, nicknamed the door to the desert for lunch. After lunch we were supposed to tour the cinema museum and one of Moroccos most famous “castles” the Taourirt Kasbah, but due to the various delays along the journey we didn’t have time if we were to make it to our hotel in the Dades Valley to catch the sunset.  We did however gain Kevin and Ryan and strangely enough the driver started being friendly, smiling and initiating conversations with me in Spanish as well as letting Ahmed know what the plan was.  I think while we were eating he was doing drugs in the bathroom. Two and a half hour later he got us to our hotel just before sunset. That night we ate dinner together and then enjoyed traditional Berber music performed by the hostel staff. When I say we, I mean the rest of the people because I went to bed after dinner, I was exhausted and had a room all to myself!

One full day of a bunch of strangers traveling together in a bus through the desert was down, one more full day to go. We woke, had breakfast and left the hotel around 8:30 and stopped two hours later where we received a tour of Tenghir, a city on the way to the dunes. We learned about the region, how agriculture works in the area and the traditional roles of the Berber men and women. We also got a tour of a Berber families house that made the traditional rugs. He said many times we didn’t have to buy anything and that people came never expecting to buy something, but was visible upset at the end. He had brought out rugs to show us so we could “see” different designs, but after 5 awkward minutes of silence I was starting to think that our only way out was if somebody bought a rug. On another note, the tour took twice as long because the only two people who didn’t speak English were the….. French Quebecs, so everything was said twice. We joked that we were going to miss the sunset in the dunes because of it.

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After four more hours in the bus we finally arrived to Merzouga (the town next to the dunes) at 6:30pm. We stopped at some place where we were all prepared to get out, however the driver said something, pointed to two of the Germans (Lukas and Elisa) and told them they had to get out. Not understanding why and on the verge of tears from the thought of being separated from us they didn’t move, they didn’t know why. Ahmed stepped in as translator and apparently they booked a private tour. Begrudgingly they exited the van and went to get their bags, with a last ditch attempt to ask the two French Quebecs if they wanted to switch (nobody wanted them anyway) failed, they were literally left in the dust while the rest of us traveled to our pre-dune destination. The eight of us who were ready, which unfortunately included the two French Quebecs, were transported to our camels. The other seven we didn’t see until we arrived to the encampment later that night. We arrived to the camels!!!! And the dunes!!!!!! The camel ride was a disappointment. It wasn’t much of a ride and was more of a novelty. I also had to share one, but the dunes were worth it. Almost as far as the eye could see (depending on which direction you were looking because they span an area of about 186 sq miles), they rose like great orange waves out of the ocean. Walking among them was like waking on a different world.

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Later that night we crammed into the main tent of the encampment for dinner along with other tour groups. We may as well have been in separate rooms because nobody spoke to others outside their group, nobody even tried, you forged a connection over the last two days with the people in yours.  After dinner we explored the dunes at night and then went to bed in our “room” that consisted of 6 mattresses on the floor. The following morning we woke at 4:30am to ride camels in darkness so that we could watch the sunrise and then went back to the pre-dune place to have breakfast. After breakfast it was time for Kevin, Ryan and I to say goodbye to the others because they were going back to Marrakech (a 10.5 hour drive) and we were going to pick up Lukas and Elisa to make our way to Fes. A 9 hour journey back through the desert and out of it, with a taxi that didn’t have AC and a driver that spoke no English.

The journey continued

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