PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Morocco Day 6

A few people have asked about how I put this trip together and how it was organized, and I thought that this would be a good post to explain that as the past day has been about travel coordination.

When Gretchen and I decided to go, we talked about the places we wanted to visit, knowing we would want to spend time in Tangier and as much time with Johanna as possible. We also wanted to do some intentional bird watching in the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert region.

I spent several  days looking at maps of Morocco and talking to some folks who had recently visited there as I sought to put together the best possible itinerary given the amount of time we wanted to be gone.

After much trial and error, I figured out the most efficient use of our time was to spend the weekend in Fes and then, if possible, go to Casablanca and fly to the western edge of the Sahara and High Atlas Mountains and wend our way east to the desert, flying back to Casablanca in order to leave for home.

What followed was nothing short of putting a puzzle together. I felt like it was one of those interlocking puzzles where you have to keep moving each frame until all of the frames come together to form a picture. I needed to figure out a way to have airplane flights match train schedules and match flights out of Morocco. It was not for the faint of heart. Oddly, I find this challenge both fun and incredibly satisfying. I had sheets of paper with schedules, times and locations. When it finally all came together, I felt like I’d won the travel lottery.

After setting our route, I set about figuring out where we would stay. For Tangier, Fes and our trip across the middle Atlas region, I wanted to find good lodging that would help me arrange for day trips and tours, so I poured through Tripadvisor, bookings.com and other such sites before I narrowed my choice to a couple of places. Part of the challenge is reading between the lines in reviews — determining whether the reviews were written by prima donnas, those who are friends of the owners and those who are legitimate reviews by travelers with reasonable expectations.

Once I secured times and places, I reached out to the places and asked questions about their ability to help with arranging for day tours on the ground. I wanted to find the best activities and options at a given place.

This may sound like a lot of work. Just going on a preset tour would be considerably easier. However, for me this is part of the fun. We were to be on our own and control our own schedules. And I think we paid a fraction of what we would have paid for a tour to do the same things. For example, three nights in Fes, including all of our tours and classes, our food and lodging, transport to and from the train station and a hammam cost a little under $250 for each of us. Plus, if we went with a group, we would not have had the individual treatment that was so delightful.

To do this, however, requires a willingness to use public transportation and place a great deal of trust in the hands of the places where we’re staying. I arranged for us to be picked up at the train station in Fez. But we needed to make our own transfer in Casablanca from the train to the airport and then our hotel. For Casablanca, the main goal of the lodging was a place that was not outrageously expensive and very close to the airport.

Our day today was indicative of both the challenges and the advantages of this approach. Last night, we got to our hotel in Casablanca quite late and left at 4 a.m. But we were three minutes from the airport and went to the airport 2½ hours early just in case there were problems, as we were taking a domestic flight, and that is not a normal thing for Western tourist to do. It was fortuitous we did because we encountered a number of challenges, including the fact that we had to check our luggage in Terminal 1 and then walk at least a half a mile to Terminal 2, where we boarded our plane. The plane left about an hour late. However, as we waited, we had no idea what was going on because they gave no updates. You just have to go with the flow. Boarding a local plane as some of the only Westerners also creates a very good picture of a culture and a society, as well as the ability to be an ambassador with a smile.

When we arrived in Ouarazazate, which is also known as the Hollywood of Africa, our first stop was Atlas Studios. Many films, including “Gladiator,” “Jewel of the Nile,” “Indiana Jones,” all of the “Mummy” movies and “Hercules,” were filmed there. As we began our tour, we were informed that Quentin Tarantino was filming his latest movie currently, and if we saw him or any of the stars, we were to say nothing to them.

It was cool to get a behind-the-scenes picture of the movie studios, as you can see by the many pictures, we had a great time envisioning ourselves in the movies. As well as proving how strong I am with my ability to hold up huge boulders.

From there, we ventured about 45 minutes to  see the Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. This has been used in many movies as well. For me, a pilgrimage was absolutely essential, as part of my goal of visiting as many major “Game of Thrones” filming sites as possible. This was the site of the Slave City.

When we first arrived, and I looked up at the steep route that we were going to have to climb, the first thing that went through my mind was, “Hell, no.” It was hot, we hadn’t had much sleep, and I hate climbing.

However, I am also incredibly determined and refuse to miss opportunities because of limitations that I can overcome. What surprised me when we reach the top was that it was not nearly as bad as I had anticipated. As our guide said, when you are walking and talking and learning, the trip is not nearly as bad. A good motto for life.

I would be lying if I did not envision the Mother of Dragons and Gray Worm or picture the crucified bodies on the posts as we entered the space. It was way cool.

From there, we took the route to our riad via the City of Roses, where we stopped and learned about how rose products are produced at women’s cooperative. We also marveled  at the amazing landscape as we drove.

We were all exhausted from our early start in the morning when we arrived at our riad, settled in, had dinner and trundled off for bed so that I could get up at 1 a.m. to watch the UC0nn Huskies win and so the others would be fresh for our early morning birdwatching excursion the next day.

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