Friday, May 13, 2016

Life at the Desert : Zagora Desert, Morocco

Assalamualaikum.

Sorry, I was supposed to update on my trip to Zagora Desert, but I got a little bit occupied.

After surviving my first day, I went to bed early because my scheduled trip to the desert was at 7 a.m. in the morning. Again, I booked my trip online from http://www.marrakechairporttransfer.com/ website. Paul, the customer relationship Manager (I assume) from the website is a very helpful person. He answered my e-mails and gave information quite promptly.

But actually, you don't really have to book anything online. There are many agents in Marrakech who will offer you the trip. You just have to choose from them. The prices are quite competitive, so no worries. I paid around £ 54 for a 2 day trip to Zagora.

During the day however, I got a bit frustrated because the driver, who was supposed to pick me up from my Riad was late. Fortunately I was able to contact Paul through e-mail and he contacted the agent for me. Apparently, the agent did not get Paul's e-mail on my booking (or had overlooked). So the driver who was supposed to pick me up came late and consequently, I joined the mini van for a 3 day trip first, and changed my transport at Atlas mountain to the mini van for the 2 day trip. That's why my opinion is it will be better if you do not book online, because if anything happens, at least you have not paid for any deposits yet.

Then it was sorted and the driver picked me up at 8 am, and we went straightaway to the mini van that took us to Atlas mountain. Throughout the journey, we stopped at several places for lunches, taking photos sessions, visited places and simply for sightseeing.

Here are several highlights for those of you who are considering to go for the desert trip to Zagora:

1. Be prepared mentally and physically.

The journey through Atlas mountains takes about 7 to 10 hours in total. That includes stopping at a few places to visit, lunches, stops for services (toilets etc) and for you to buy water bottles or snacks. The journey was not as pleasant if you are going with a minivan. If you are with children, maybe buses will be more appropriate for you.

Make sure you drink a LOT of water, and maybe some carbonated drinks to keep you hydrated.

2. Bring enough money.

You are expected to pay locals for everything they serve, or help you with. You will be visiting places like Ait Ben Haddou (a real oasis) and the tour is not free. You are expected to pay some MAD 25 - MAD 30.

The lunches are not included in the tour package as well. Foods normally cost you around MAD 100 to MAD 180. Drinks are typically priced at MAD 80 - 100. The toilets are not free too at some places. It costs you MAD 10.

At the desert tent, you will be required to give a "gift", which is more like a tip. I gave MAD 100. My tent-mates gave MAD 20 and MAD 50. The value is undetermined, it really depends on how much you would like to give as a courtesy because the desert "hosts" have been hosting for you to sleep at the desert and they actually take care of you at night, prepared dinner and breakfasts as well. So it's fair for me to give them something in return.

Overall, I spent about MAD 800 (around £60+). I did not buy souvenirs during the trip. Bear in mind that there would be no money changers around. But I did exchange some money in a hotel along the Atlas mountain.

3. Enjoy the journey!

Here are several pictures I took during the journey.




Along the journey, you will see a lot of people selling unique stones, dates, argan oils etc. It really makes me wonder, if they do make money. Because they are found literally nowhere.
Small kids randomly sitting under the burning sun. They were just chatting apparently

An elderly man working while two youngsters were taking a break

Don't be fooled by the bright sunshine. It was quite cold actually due to the altitude of the mountain.

This is our first stop for some snacks. This place is quite well known for argan oils.

These women are the workers responsible for making argan oils. They crush the argania shells and slowly grinding the seeds to become oil.

This is Ait Ben Haddou, a real oasis. According to the tour guide, many Hollywood movies were shot here such as The Mummy, Prince of Persia, Kingdom of heaven and some parts of Game of Thrones.


Just a few vendors selling goods for the tourists.

It has a lot of steps for you to go to the top of the hill where you will be able to see the whole view.





This is a real room for the people living there. It actually has a television.

The view is magnificent. Honestly, I did not feel tired climbing the hill at all!



Then approaching sunset, we made our last stop for refreshments and we then headed directly to Zagora desert to ensure that we would be able to make it there to see the sunset.

 Upon arrival at the desert, a camel will be designated for you. Each person will get an individual camel for a ride. It takes you around 30 minutes to reach the tents by riding the camel. I really love riding the camel experience. It was surreal! However it was a bit unpleasant for me because the hump kind of hurting my buttocks. But still, it was the most worth of all and the unpleasant long journey really just forgotten.
The camel I was riding.

This is the tent I was placed in, together with three other people from Japan.

Inside the tent
Honestly, I did not take pictures of the sunset, because you really just forgot about technology for a moment. It was the most precious feeling to just sit down and watch the sunset. The feelings made me felt alive and peaceful. I performed my prayer there and nothing will ever beat that amazing feelings!

The sky at night is to die for. I did not bother to take pictures at all. All I did was lying on the ground and just staring at the bright stars. It made me forget everything in life for a moment.

We were greeted with some tea once we arrived at our tents.

The climax of the night was the bonfire singing performance by the hosts. I was requested to try the musical instrument, but unfortunately, I got cramps due to sudden drop of temperature at night. So I could not enjoy the rest of the bonfire perfectly. Sigh!

After a long journey, we went to sleep with peace. The bed in the tent was surprisingly comfortable to my liking though. I slept very well during the night. I heard occasional dogs' barks. But it was ironically soothing instead of sounding scary.


Then the next day, I woke up early to see the sunrise, and it was amazing!

Sunrise you will never see in London. Not even in Brunei!

We had another camel ride to get to the driver who took us back to our hotels.

A love sign can be clearly seen formed at this mountain. All couples definitely did not miss the chance to take lovely pictures. Me? I blog about it. Oh well. lol
This was our last stop for picture taking during our journey back to Marrakech. At this point, everyone was already exhausted and did not take that much pictures anymore.
Although the life in the desert seems quite challenging, but for some reasons I love it, and I kind of wish that I was born in the desert. I don't know. The life of the desert people seem to be very simple, that you can actually see random people walking or sitting out of nowhere. I think they are accustomed to having a life where they are always travelling.

The desert people to me are quite (and more) genuine too, compared to Marrakech people who always want to rip you off. They are happy even if you give smallest things. For example, I brought some pistachios and chocolate cookies with me. One of the hosts asked me what I have with me, and since I did not really feel like eating all of them, so I gave him all of it. And his smile and thanks just made me happy and felt appreciated. He shared the foods with his friends. I also gave him a bottle of water, although he did not really seem to need it (I assume it was because they really got used to the desert heat anyways).

It was a short getaway for me, but it was really meaningful. I'm actually glad that I chose Morocco as my first destination for my first solo trip. For my next trip, I'm thinking to go to an European country. I'm thinking to have a turn; Different cultures in every trip.

I'm also considering Egypt. I thought the country would be unsafe for visit at recent environment, but according to an acquaintance who just happened to visit Egypt quite recently, it is quite safe to go and it also sounds exciting! I mean, what will be more exciting than going for yourself to a place with the most well known and majestic history of all time? In shaa Allah.

So ladies and gents, that's all for my post about my first solo trip. Till next time.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A little taste of Marrakech, Morocco

Assalamualaikum.

Have you ever wondered that one day, what you said in the past, would come true? One of many things I had said (or kind of wished) had happened to me, just this week. When I was little, I wished that one day, I would travel alone to a desert. Well, I did not specify which desert, but this week, my wish was granted. I made it to Zagora desert, in Morocco, alone (without my family or any friends).

Back in 2010, my friends and I had planned to travel together when we have enough funds. To be honest, I had never traveled outside Brunei (except Miri or Limbang in Malaysia) since I was little. I just could not afford it. Then in 2011, I saved some money from working as a tuition teacher and that was my FIRST time ever, to travel with my friends to Singapore.

Then when I started my current job, I had the opportunity to travel outside Brunei for work, and that's how I started to gather some confidence to try to travel all by myself. And on 25th April 2016, I made my own record, to travel alone. My first destination as a solo traveler is Marrakech, Morocco.

Marrakech was sold by my Boss, who went there for a vacation with his family early this year. I was at that time looking for the country to go to as my first solo trip destination. When my Boss told me about his trip and when he described the way of life there, I suddenly got attracted to it. Then I made some research and I found the trips to the desert. It didn't take long, I immediately planned my first solo trip itinerary.

Marrakech view from the place I stayed's rooftop
For this post, I will share briefly, how I traveled from London to Marrakech and Day 1 in Marrakech. For the next two posts, I will share my experience staying at the desert and some valuable lessons/experiences I have learned from my trip.

For my trip to Morocco, I did most of my research by reading from wikitravel.org.

1. Visa

Some countries will need a visa to enter Morocco. You can check if you require a visa from this link : http://www.moroccanconsulate.org.uk/en/Visa.html  . For Bruneians, yes, you need a visa to enter Morocco. Check out the website, they provide all of the information you require for a visa application.

2. Flight

I used easyjet to fly from London Gatwick to Marrakech. The flight is about 3 hours long. My flight was early in the morning, at 6 am. I decided to stay at Gatwick to avoid any unexpected events. I chose easyjet plus and my seat was really in the first front row. I paid a total of £108.22 for my ticket including insurance.

Bear in mind that before applying for the visa, you are required to have the flight itinerary and the insurance first, or else your application will be declined. The visa typically takes 2 - 3 weeks to complete.

I stayed overnight at Premier Inn hotel in Gatwick. It costs me £35. There are two Premier Inn hotels, one is just opposite to the airport, while the other is 5 min walk. Mine was the 5 min walk. The hotel is adequate for an overnight stay and there is a shell station next to it with a convenience store
3. Touchdown in Marrakech

I arrived in Marrakech around 10 am. Marrakech was cool, despite the bright sunshine. You have to fill in an arrival form before proceeding to passport control, so please always have a pen with you.

I did not look for a taxi because I booked a transport online through http://www.marrakechairporttransfer.com/ . It is quite cheap and very convenient. The driver will be waiting for you outside the airport with your name and will carry your bags for you. The car provided was quite big for me though.

There is a money changer in the airport. Honestly, I think it's better to exchange your money at the airport if you want to change a huge amount of money. It's safer. I converted a total of £ 400, which was equivalent to 5,000 + MAD. The currency is a closed currency, hence you will not be able to convert it elsewhere.

It is really an advantage if you know how to speak French and Arabic, because they speak mostly in those two languages. Although some can speak English very well. It's a shame that I have not been practising my French and Arabic for a very long time!

4. Accommodation

For accommodations, you can check wikitravel for the lists of good accommodations. As for me, I looked from booking.com . I stayed at Azzouna 13, from the best deal that I got from the website. Do not get confused, a riad is not a hotel. It is like a house, with a real Moroccan style. The Riad I stayed in only has five rooms. I booked it for 4 days and 3 nights, but I only stayed on the first day, and the night before I left, because I stayed over at the desert. I left all my belongings at the Riad.

Staying at the Riad costs me £ 230 (rounded).
My bed


This sky view is literally above the living room of the riad



The living room has an open space

the rooftop during the dusk

Quite a simple yet delicious breakfast

Me, standing outside my room

I admit that the first time I got there, I was really shocked and kind of concerned, because the Riad was located inside a narrow road. The airport transfer dropped me at the big road and then he called someone to help me carry my things to my place. I was nervous, as the place was too dodgy for me, and the alleys are too confusing for first timers. But the Riad is really beautiful. The rooftop is amazing and calming. The owner is very friendly and helpful too.

What I suggest is that if you are a first timer traveler, especially if you are a female, get a hotel near the new town instead. The reason for this is because the alleys from my Riad to the attractions in Marrakech are confusing, and there are a lot of preying eyes on tourists. They are not criminals, or bad guys, but they are preying on your needs for help. They will make you confused by saying this alley is closed etc and offered to give help and show directions. After that they will ask money from you. It can be overwhelming because they can be in a group of teenagers or even non-teenagers. On my first day, I was swarmed by a group of teenagers shouting giving me help and I got really confused on where to go. And I could tell they are friends and did that on purpose. They can be very forceful even if you said you don't need help. They will follow you and persistently making you confused.

One way to avoid them is not to react to them. Once you react, you are somehow "accepting" their "service" to help and they will be annoyingly persistent to get something from you. So just make a straight face as if you know where to go, and find a safer place (like a restaurant) to take out your phone or map to re-evaluate your route.

That's why I don't recommend first timers as they can somehow tell you are first timers. If you are already a frequent traveler to Marrakech, then this Riad is definitely a perfect place for you. Or at least, if you are not alone. Because they don't prey that much on tourists in a group.

5. Getting around Marrakech

Before I got to Marrakech, I was advised to get a private tour guide to walk me around as I was a first timer because Marrakech is totally a place where education on its society is vital I would say. However, I refused and thought I could handle it. But yes, I was wrong.

I was not familiar with how to haggle prices there as I did not know the standard values of goods and services there, even I have read the guides provided on wikitravel, but when I got there, I lost it. (I will tell you how I got ripped off by paying 2,000 MAD (equivalent to £145) for four scarfs! in my post specifically talking about my experience).

I gave up and I hired a tour guide. I was aware that the tour guide I hired was not an official one since he did not wear any badges etc. But his price was the same with the price I was quoted online, 1,000 MAD (equivalent to £ 70+). But for your record, the price for a tour guide may be lower than that. Please check on trip advisor for more reliable pricing of a tour guide.

So with the tour guide, I paid a horse carriage for 400 MAD (around £ 30+, again the price might be lower than that) and walked around Marrakech for more than two hours because I insisted to go to all around tourists attractions in Marrakech.

The famous Jamael Fna


The Mosque

Me, in the front of the main entrance to the Kasbah

I actually did not take a lot of pictures because I rather enjoy the relaxing moment on the horse carriage than being busy taking good shots. But I did record my journey using my "spy-shades". I haven't had the time to look at it yet. Maybe some time. I visited almost every corner of Marrakech but of course, not a "detailed visit".

But as I mentioned earlier, getting a hotel near to the square of Jamael Fna or the new town may give you more time to walk around. I did not stay until night because I was a bit concerned to go back to my Riad at night considering the alleys in the neighborhood of my Riad are poorly lit and it can (or may not be anyways) be dangerous. I was just trying to be safe. Plus, I needed to go back earlier to save some energy for my trip to the desert the next day.

6. Relaxing and watching the sunset

I got back to my Riad just before the sunset, which was around 8.30 pm. The sunset in Marrakech is amazing! Nothing like London, to be honest. It is because the sky is really bright and clear.




The rooftop is perfect for couples really. But I also had my time alone there, relaxing. The wind was so phenomenal and made me really sleepy and stress free
So there you go. My very first trip to Marrakech, Morocco on my first day. Yes, I did not explore Marrakech much on my first day because my real intention was to go to the desert. Maybe in my next trip I would spend more time exploring Marrakech as far as it strecthes, in shaa Allah. Till then, au revoir.