In our four days before leaving to Morocco, Mal (one of my best friends from home who decided to come join me for a month of travels)  and I honestly didn’t do much of anything besides catching up, going for spontaneous hikes, and practicing our (lack of) Spanish. Unfortunately Mal had a flight delay causing her to miss her connection, so we weren’t able to celebrate the New Year together. However, I was lucky to be hosted by my friend from university Victoria, who was teaching English in a suburb outside of Madrid and living with her boyfriend Alberto.  We caught up and had a great time together, celebrating the Spanish tradition of stuffing 12 grapes in our mouths as the clock counted down, surrounded by adolescents throwing fireworks in every direction. This mixed with old people dancing to awful pop music and Christmas techno remixes made for a very odd spectacle. I have to say it was definitely a different New Year’s celebration than in past years, but it was nice to have a mellow night and relax before my crazy month with Mal would begin.

DSC_0357 (Medium)

A hiking path outside of Aranjuez.

DSC_0377 (Medium)

View from the top of the hike overlooking Aranjuez as the sun sets on the first day of the New Year, January 1st, 2016.

DSC_0401 (Medium)

DSC_0406 (Medium)

A random courtyard Mal and I stumbled upon.

DSC_0437 (Medium)

Mal goofing around in Real de Aranjuez (Royal Palace of Aranjuez)

And crazy it was, as Mal’s flight took a whole extra day to arrive; luckily, she was able to catch the last bus after taking the metro from the airport, and arrived around 2:30am in the small suburb, to my enormous hugs. Before we knew it, our flight approached and we were off to Marrakech together, with a (very) loosely put together plan, and an inbox filled with invitations to host us through couchsurfing. We decided on one guy in Marrakech who seemed like an alright person, but right from the start, we had difficulties overcoming a language barrier. It turned out that the guy was more interested in having us pay for everything than actually getting to know what our interests were, and his style of “tourism” was very far from our interests in exploring off the beaten path routes through the medina, capturing the beautiful tiles and shy passing faces of hijabed women. It felt awful at the time, but we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the hosts’ parents (who were extremely generous and kind) and younger brother a lot more than him. Generally I try to get to know people I couchsurf with and form friendly relationships, but after a couple days, we decided that it was more than enough time in Marrakech, and were offered a place to stay in the clay-red mountainside of the Ourika Valley.

DSC_0462 (Medium)

The tilework inside El Badi Palace.

DSC_0517 (Medium)

View from on top of the El Badi Palace.

DSC_0529 (Medium)

Storks nest on the tops of many parts of the medina walls in Marrakech.

DSC_0542 (Medium)

DSC_0573 (Medium)

Visiting a favorite pop-art fashion photographer named Hassan Hajjaj’s studio/riad.

DSC_0610 (Medium)

DSC_0627 (Medium)

DSC_0690 (Medium)

A family motorbikes through the Medina walls of Marrakech in the late evening.

This time, not only did our host share similar interests, but he was humble, welcoming, sociable, and we immediately felt at home. What initially interested us in contacting Abdelhaq was the fact that he had insane photos on his profile of all the travels he had done with his yellow VW Bus in Western Africa, and was also a sculpture artist. If that wasn’t enough, we then found out how INCREDIBLE he was at cooking, how much he loved hiking, how truly talented and awe-inspiring his artwork was, and his all-around kind and gentle personality.  Being picked up in that same VW Bus from the streets of Marrakech and driving through the winding roads into the mountains felt like a dream. Sunshine warmed our bodies, wind whipped at our hair through the open windows, and amazing tunes played from Abdelhaq’s built-in speakers, giving us a real kickstart to our journey.

DSC_0774 (Medium)

Coming down from a hike way in the mountains, Mal and I descended into a small village, where someone was making a large fire, causing the smoke behind the tree.

DSC_0826 (Medium)

Without speaking any common language, this man invited Mal and I into his home for a cup of tea, bread, and olive oil. His wife made Mal and I some of the best Rosemary Tea we’ve ever had, sipping slowly as we all laughed at not being able to understand one another.

DSC_0861 (Medium)

Mal laughing away her wet clothes and boots from falling in the river.

DSC_0888 (Medium)

Wes Anderson doors.

DSC_0914 (Medium)

Shy children were a common theme in most of the villages we stumbled upon, however after a couple silly faces and dancing from Mal, we won them all over.

DSC_0943 (Medium)

A sunset casts rays through the mountains into the valley we were walking in.

DSC_0988 (Medium)

Vintage djellabas hang in the back of the storefront of a friend of Abdelhaq’s, that invited us over to his studio for Couscous Friday, a tradition that involves inviting friends and family over each Friday to celebrate the Muslim holy day.

DSC_1025 (Medium)

Inside a synagogue that we found while walking through a village.

DSC_1071 (Medium)

Storage units for the grounds where a local marketplace occurs every weekend.

DSC_1085 (Medium)

Storage Unit Details

DSC_1123 (Medium)

The next couple days were heaven, as we woke up each morning from the comfort of five or six massive Moroccan blankets stacked on top of us, went out for early morning sunrise hikes, and explored remote villages where locals inviting us into their homes for mouthwatering organic and local homemade food. A couple days in, Abdelhaq told us that he had offered to host another couchsurfer, and along came a bubbly Polish girl named Iga who temporarily joined our adventures. We did a daytrip to nearby waterfalls together, taking a local minibus as the only foreigners inside. Locals giggled and stared at us as we spoke to one another, reinforcing the stereotype of how shy but friendly rural Moroccans can come off.

DSC_1149 (Medium)

The view of a village from hiking up the waterfalls.

DSC_1191 (Medium)

DSC_0021 (Medium)

View of the mountains across the way from our hike.

DSC_0057 (Medium)

DSC_0111 (Medium)

DSC_0146 (Medium)

The sound of the Muezzin leading his call to prayer echoed off the mountains for miles as the sun set.

DSC_0150 (Medium)

DSC_0161 (Medium)

A man on a donkey rides up the road to head home after a long day of work.

Ending our time with Abdelhaq, he drove us into town to catch the bus back to Marrakech in order to hitch out to Essaouira, a coastal town in the west of the country known for its’ much sought-after solace and fresh air. But before we got on the bus, we were able to go to the local marketplace, where villagers from all over came to sell anything from fruits to used backpacks. It was there that we got a kilo of the most amazing mandarin oranges for our next ride.

DSC_0195 (Medium)

One of Abdelhaq’s sculptures greets you at the entrance to his studio/apartment with a confused look….

DSC_0205 (Medium)

Driving in the back of the VW Bus with Iga to the local market, with Mal riding shotgun and Abdelhaq driving.

DSC_0217 (Medium)

A man in a djellaba walks through the marketplace past a chicken seller.

DSC_0219 (Medium)

Some sort of Moroccan nut for sale at the marketplace.

DSC_0226 (Medium)

The view as we left the marketplace.

Excited and energized by the positive energy and company we had been with for the past days, Mal and I were enthusiastic to meet more locals, hear their travel stories, and experience more fleeting moments that would lodge themselves in our memories. Within fifteen minutes, we were picked up by two interesting, entertaining, and artistic Berliners on vacation that would become our go-to hangout friends within Essaouira for the next two days.