The dusty road to Marrakech had just started to straighten out after hours of tight curves along jagged mountains. We sped up when we spotted two policemen standing in the middle of the road by a small car. They waved us over.
We had been warned about this: Drivers being asked to pay bribes to get through random checkpoints.
The mustached man spoke little English but indicated that he wanted 5,000 dirhams, or about $600.
My boyfriend, Andrew Strickler, who was driving, balked. The officer, nervous now as he noticed we were foreign, immediately dropped the price to 3,000 and then quickly to 1,000.
Andrew started to hand over the cash as visions of foreign jail cells flashed before my eyes. I tried to make polite conversation to explain what we were doing here. I held up a copy of our Lonely Planet guide and said we were journalists. As I did, he backed off and handed back the money, one bill at a time, grinning widely.
"You work," he said to Andrew. "She is wife. She no work. Yes?"
He laughed, slapped Andrew on the shoulder and waved us on.
Ah, the Moroccan road trip.
We spent two weeks on the road in this North African country. The routes are winding, at times frighteningly so. The street signs are in Moroccan Arabic and French, languages neither one of us knows. Still, we figured that navigating the byways was the best way to experience the country.
We came to Morocco to visit friends who write for a news website, GlobalPost. We made plans to meet in the southern part of the country after a few days traveling on our own.
It's fairly easy to rent a car in Morocco, and costs about the same as taking trains and buses. But driving gives you more freedom to stop along the way, and the flexibility to change your plans and linger in a location you like. Plus, all the gas stations double as small cafes where they serve strong Moroccan coffee and tea.
These cafes, along with most other locations, are filled mostly with men; women do not spend as much time in public places in this Muslim nation. Still, as long as you dress modestly (no tank tops or short skirts), you'll feel only mildly uncomfortable as a female out on the town. I only interacted with three Moroccan women while I was there, but the men were friendly and welcoming, though often they preferred to talk to Andrew instead of me.
Morocco is a kingdom bordering the Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles from the southern tip of Spain. We started our trip without a car, flying to Casablanca from Madrid on the low-budget carrier EasyJet, then heading north to Rabat, the country's capital, by train. Here we visited the medina, a word that literally translates to old city, but in Morocco also usually means a marketplace with a thick weave of shops and hawkers who sell and fix everything from cell phones to blenders to camel heads to carpets. Every city has one.
From there we took a train to Fez, home to one of the world's largest continuous car-free areas. The entire city is a narrow maze, virtually impossible to navigate on your own, especially if you have only one day. We hired a guide who walked us through the vendor-filled passageways.
One unusual sight was a tannery with a checkerboard of dye pools, hides scattered everywhere in various stages of drying. Small worker apartments lined the inner corridors. It was pouring rain, so the stench was manageable, but our guide told us stories of other tourists who were sickened by the awful smell. Owners hand out fresh mint to sniff as an antidote.
Our road trip began a day later, with a 10-hour drive southeast from Rabat to a town called Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara desert. It took about an hour to rent the tiny blue tin-can car, which cost about $300 for six days. Only stick-shift vehicles were available; travelers should know that Morocco is notorious for highway accidents, so be careful. Andrew did most of the driving the first day, and I navigated using maps and signs, which meant trying to translate from Arabic and French into English using a teeny dictionary. After a while you realize there are so few roads to get from one place to the next that it's not that difficult to intuit your way.
The landscape changed when we arrived at the Sahara. It's barren and rocky, like a moonscape, with nothing ahead or behind. In the past decade, hotels have cropped up but they're far off in the distance from the single-lane gravel road. It's best to get there before dark so you can see where you're going. You take a left near a hotel sign and head off into the sand. It looks like you're heading toward nothing but huge golden sand dunes at the edge of the world. Miles and miles of softly sculpted dunes, called Erg Chebbi, stretched out in front of us.
Our hotel, Kanz Erremal, cost about $100 for two, including dinner and breakfast. (For the budget traveler, cheaper hotels can also be found, but you have to really look for them.) The hotel also offers camel trips to the desert, either overnight or at dawn. We took the shorter morning trip, for an extra $50, to watch the sunrise. Getting up at dark, we climbed onto our stinky, grumpy camels as they knelt down. The makeshift saddle had a metal handle and a few blankets. The camels walk in plodding steps; I found sitting with my legs up was easiest for balance. Our guide walked, leading the camels, with us riding, behind him. After about 20 minutes the hotels disappeared and we saw nothing but desert.
Our guide stopped the camels and we got off. He warned us not to pet them. (They are not like horses, FYI.) We scrambled up to the top of a dune, and while our guide walked the entire way, I was so exhausted and out of breath I could barely stand.
The silence was shocking, interrupted only by the crunching sound of the camels and the occasional growl. The sky was huge and colorful, splashed with bursts of bluish pink and blazing orange.
We then drove east to an oasis called El Khorbat in the Todra Valley. This unusual destination uses tourism as a way to help preserve a traditional fortified village, called a casbah, where dwellings are made from earth and clay. Families still live there, but there is also a museum documenting local history and various excursions. We took a long walk among palm trees and down dirt roads with a guide who spoke four languages, discussing literature and politics.
Back on the road, the landscape turned hillier as we moved on, passing through several poor small towns before reaching Ouarzazate, which is the Los Angeles of Morocco. Several movies have been filmed there and it has a decidedly wealthy, Western feel with manicured streets and pink walls.
We returned the car in Marrakech. The rental company dropped us at the entrance to the medina, where we were staying at the Hotel Du Tresor. The hotel was a quiet, cool sanctuary from the rest of the medina, a wild and busy place complete with snake charmers (and snakes), psychics and hawkers of all kinds. Inside the market, we ate huge snails in broth with a toothpick (totally gross), fried sardines (delicious) and tagine with couscous (eh).
From Marrakech, we bused to the surf town Agadir to meet our friends, then drove together south to Sidi Ifni, an uncrowded beach spot with imposing red stone arches, eroded over eons by the ocean. A stay at an oceanside resort cost barely $150 for two people for two nights, including breakfast. It was the most peaceful part of the trip, and Andrew's favorite part. It's worth traveling there just to stand under the arches.
After a few days in the sun, we drove back up the coast, about 10 hours to Rabat, where deserted stretches alternated with poor towns and rich areas. One funny sight on the winding mountain roads was goats perched in the tops of small trees called Argans. They climb up to eat the seeds. We saw as many as six munching on one tree at a time. We took some pictures but they ignored us.
Before we left the country, we did some shopping. Our friends, having lived here long enough to become skilled in the art of bargaining, came with us to buy a carpet and we all acted out a part: Andrew, the moneybags tourist, me the stingy partner, and the other couple, a wizened ex-pat with his hurrying wife, who wanted to get us to dinner on time. The role of the clever, miserly carpet man was successfully played by the rug vendor.
In the end, though, we couldn't agree on a price. We overpaid $20 for some tea glasses, but we walked away without a rug.