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I’m a little nervous about my first winter trek not knowing how technical this hike is going to be, but I feel overwhelmed by the number of guides trying to sell me tours to the Sahara Desert that I need to get away from it all.

(I use ‘all’ in code because I received two pieces of important news less than a week ago and one of those is about to change my life.)

Now I am in Morocco, a place I know nothing about other than mint tea, mosaic tile, and that Penny Lane from the movie, Almost Famous, said she was going to escape there for a year.

Back to the trek, right… my ADD is kicking in again.

DAY ONE: Marrakech to Imlil
13,880 steps, 5.8 miles, 93 floors

I start my morning with an 8:30 am pickup at the Rooftop Hostel. I’ve been staying at this hostel for the last week that I got to know the staff quite well. Rabir, usually dressed in a warm neutral colored djellaba, speaks broken English, but for some reason likes to always say “Marhba!” when he sees me which means, “Welcome!” I always respond just as enthusiastically with, “Choukran!” which means “Thank you!” and that was how we bonded.

My driver picks me up and he helps me carry the sleeping bag that was lent to me by another Moroccan who owns, Atlas Extreme, an outdoor equipment rental shop in Imlil. I’m packed a little light and insist on carrying my own backpack.

It’s a long drive to pick up the other girl who is supposed to join me on this trip. Well, I’m actually joining her. The trekking company, Trek in Morocco, I booked through said the girl signed up for a private tour but didn’t want to trek alone so apparently I got a decent price – until I found the same trek for about $60 cheaper on Tour Radar. Ugh, I hate negotiating tour rates. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.

Back to the girl.

The distance to the girl’s riad felt far outside the medina. We park just outside of an alleyway – very common for Marrakech – the city is built to confuse you and doesn’t allow any parking in many areas of the Jemaa el-Fnaa (marketplace and square). My driver is gone for around 15 minutes, and I sit patiently in the backseat keeping myself busy on social media. He comes back and tells me she is finishing breakfast, but we’ll drive around to a closer pickup point. It’s nearly 9:30 am at this point that I have a feeling this girl is the type to habitually run late.

We drive around, and he leaves again for another 20 minutes until I finally see them. She’s a light brown skinned, petite girl with a dark brown pixie cut and one subtle highlight into her fringe. I hear her from behind asking the driver, “Is anyone else in the car?” and he tells her I’m there. Then she asks about the group of British guys that were also supposed to come until she learns that it’s just the two of us.

Nina (pseudo name) introduces herself. She’s Pakistani living in UAE and working in advertising. I find the advertising business very sexy and started to ask her lots of questions.

I told her a little about myself. It’s my first time to Morocco, yadda, yadda.

About an hour and a half later, we drive up the mountain to our first checkpoint. There was an “incident” that happened a couple weeks ago involving two Scandinavian girls. I try to ignore it as the guards review our passports and driver’s paperwork.

Not long after we finally reach our destination to a windy hill in a small village. I read on the sign, “Riad Oussagou.” More men help us with our bags, Nina’s being oversized. We are both shown our rooms, and I am surprised to find that I had my own. This is the first bit of privacy I’ll have in a week.

The room is very comfortable and cozy with extra heavy blankets, a hanging djellaba, and *cheering * a bathtub. Woot! I’m luxury living now and can’t wait to use that later.

It’s only around 10:30 am by this point, so we have enough time to take a small break before we go on a short acclimatization hike. The trails are well-defined, and it’s actually quite warm once we hit the sun.

A few hours later, we make it to a viewpoint where our cook, Hamid, prepares a nice lunch for us – pasta salad with sardines and kefta served in a tagine.

We head back down the hill after lunch and before sunset, so I use the free time to take a nap before dinner. It’s actually quite cold once the sun hid behind the mountains. I lost my down jacket in the airport on my way to Morocco, so I layer myself with all that I have to work with, and that’s a long sleeve top, a yoga jacket, and my jean jacket. It’s still not warm enough, so I grab the brown djellaba; albeit I don’t think brown is my color. It was money though. Money in the sense I felt like Riad Oussagou did me a solid by keeping me warm.

It’s very quiet that I wonder if anyone else is staying here besides the two of us. I use silence as an opportunity to explore the riad and discover a heated room where our meals would later be served. Pakistani girl is writing in a small journal. She shared in the car that she likes to write poetry. Then one other guy joins but keeps his distance in the corner of the entrance and doesn’t spark up a conversation. The room is furnished with several heat lamps and a fireplace that’s lit. I like that it’s cozy and acts as a heated lounge.

We’re served tagine for dinner, and I could tell Nina wanted company afterward, but a decent nights rest sounded better to me, and I turned in around 9:00 pm.

DAY 2: Imlil to Base Camp (6 hours turned into 8 hours)
25,880 steps, 11.2 miles, 77 floors

Breakfast is ready around 7:30 am, and I’m the only one there. It’s continental with breads and spreads, pancakes, boiled eggs, instant coffee, and orange juice. I help myself to a couple of boiled eggs and coffee, but I’m wondering if Pakistani girl is running late again and go back to my room to remove my bags into a central area.

After having lunch yesterday and dinner last night, I realize that the Trip Advisor reviews I read weren’t very accurate and that I packed too much food. I pull out a zipped bag of a pesto gouda, cumin gouda, and aged cheddar. I want you all so bad, but pesto and cumin are out. Apples and oranges? You’re out too. I’ll keep the cured meat though. Pretzels, done. Almonds, you get to stay. Energy bars, stay. Okay, now I can fit a hard shell jacket and windbreaker pants my guide brought for me.

I finally see Nina get up and head for breakfast, late. Again. We were scheduled to leave now, but I guess it’s okay. I’m trying not to be so German on this trip, “We must leave at nein!” and check myself. We’ll have plenty of time to sit around at base camp. “Inshallah.” as they say in Morocco, which means “if Allah wills it.” That I interpret as, “No worries.” Or as Moroccans also say, “Relax, Max. No fax.” And “No hurry like Ferrari.”

We leave around 9:00 am, and Nina’s oversized bag and my sleeping bag gets thrown on the mule that our cook, Hamid, will navigate up the mountain. The trail is wide enough trail for cars to pass by until we get to a waterfall.

I’m usually a bit of a power walker uphill, but we had to make continuous stops for my trekking buddy who moved at a different pace. This is her second time attempting to summit, so I’m finding myself being more patient than usual and cheerleading her from the sidelines. The snow melted on the trail making our journey up a lot easier and less technical.

My patient pose.

About halfway up, we stop for lunch at a shackie-looking restaurant called, Café Chamharouch, that rests near a river in a tiny village. It works as an open kitchen for groups and where Hamid would prepare our lunch. Hamid serves a similar plate from yesterday, but I find myself enjoying it just the same. I use the rest of the hour to take pictures and explore the souvenir merch nearby and see a yellow Mount Toubkal shirt I’m going to buy on the way back down.

Selfie with my cook
Soaking up the sun after lunch.

We move at a steady pace up the hill, slower than others, and I’m craving a sugary snack. Yes, I forgot I left these in here! La, la, la, la, la, la…

Or is it…LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA?

SoCal roots representing the West siiiide!!!

Boom. Old snow starts to show on the higher trails but not enough where we had to put our crampons on. I’m mostly fascinated by the windblown packed snow and seeing my first frozen waterfall.

Once we see basecamp, I sort of leave my group behind and trek at a pace I’m comfortable with. It allowed me enough time to selfie-timer these shots. The sun is falling behind the mountains, and I’m eager to get to our refuge before it gets colder than it already is, and head for shelter on my own. My guide, Brahim, and Nina aren’t too far behind, and I wait outside for them to join me at Refuge du Toubkal, Les Mouflons.

Finally! We made it…8 hours later…instead of 6.

Rufuge de Toubkal

We step into the refuge, and it’s dark without power (the lights don’t come on until officially after sunset.) Brahim shows me my room in a deep shared bunker of about 20 people. He grabs me a couple of heavy blankets for the night, but then Nina asks if I wouldn’t mind sharing space in her private room instead. That’s so kind of her. See where my patience gets me? I think she found more comfort (and warmth) in not sleeping alone.

We drop our bags and meet Brahim who saved a couple of chairs for us to warm up next to the fireplace and then pours us tea. Socks are dangling from chairs and on a pole next to the furnace and a bunch of hiking boots on the floor trying to get dry.

We’re guided to a common area like the one at our riad earlier. It’s warm and full of other trekkers, mostly guys but a small handful of women. I think we only saw one or two women hiking down earlier today, so it was nice to see more at the top.

One observation I noticed is a “No alcohol” sign posted on the door entry. What in the eff? Ha. Just kidding. I didn’t bring any wine on this trip.

We have our dinner and then make our way to bed noting the condensation and heavy moisture in the air. We fell asleep with smoky breath and woke up too damp clothes.

Day 3: Summit Day
16,370 steps, 7.2 miles, 77 floors

I wake up to all the shuffling around from trekkers getting up much earlier for the summit. A group of 10 mentioned the night before they were going to peak and then hike back to Imlil in the same day. That will make it a 12-hour trip if you’re going at a steady pace.

Meh. I’m not that ambitious nor am I in a hurry. I’d much rather enjoy a 6-hour day and rest another night at the refuge.

I fall back into a light sleep keeping a squinty eye on my 6:30 am alarm. I’m not much of an early bird, and since I have the sneaky feeling that my trekking buddy won’t be ready to leave on time, I’ll wait for her to get up first.

Her alarm goes off after mine, and she snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Now Brahim is shining a flashlight into our window and knocks lightly on the door. He’s probably thinking, “Get the hell up, ladies! Chop, chop!” Nina finally gets up and starts to get ready. I meet her downstairs with my bags, and she later joins for breakfast when…guess? When we’re supposed to leave. Are you getting the theme here? Inshallah.

Sunrise

We’re almost last to leave the refuge. The sun is rising, and we start the trail with our crampons and an ice ax. There are frequent stops. I finally decide to lead once the snow began to make a bit of a path. Then stopping to wait and use the time as a photo opp.

Brahim sees Nina is struggling and asks me if I wanted to join a faster group that was passing us. I am surprised when I tell him, “No, I’ll wait. We’re a team. We go up together, and we’ll come down together.”

“Who are you?” I’m questioning myself. “That’s very selfless of you.”

So we play this game of I run ahead, then wait, then we walk together, and repeat.

We make it to our first viewpoint at the top of the mountain. Brahim is carrying Nina’s pack over his chest with her elbow interlocked into his arm. Fina-fucking-ly.

Brahim removes our crampons, and I share with them that I’m actually quite content with where we are if we decide not to make it to the top. We’re about 100 meters away, and it is already 2:00 pm and took us 6 hours to get up the hill instead of 3. I don’t want to have to hike in the dark.

Brahim pours me some tea he kept hidden until now. Yum. So soothing. We eat a couple of snacks and take a few photos.

“What do you think?” Brahim asks.

“I’m good if you guys want to turn around. My feet and fingers are frozen.” I answer.

He pauses and looks at Nina. This is her second attempt. Last year there was snow sometimes as high as her waist. Then he looks at me.

“I think we can make it.” He encourages.

Ugh. Not the answer I really want to hear, but exactly the motivation I needed to hear at that moment. Brahim points at the summit, and it looks far. Ugh, again.

Do you see it? Tiny little triangular shape on top?

Let’s go!

It was maybe only another 30-45 minutes before we found ourselves at the top and went by a lot quicker than I imagined it would.

I sigh in relief wiping all the snot running alongside my swollen face. Yaaasssss! We did it! We give hugs, struggle to find a rock that could take a group photo, and then rush back down the hill.

We are back to base camp around 4:30 pm and get a couple of cheers and claps when they see us. I think we’re the last down the hill. Hamid prepares us a late lunch, and we Airdrop exchange photos in the lounge area while observing the several guides who seem to be drawn to the windows where they suspect might be able to get a bar of wifi. We tell Hamid we don’t need dinner since we had such a late lunch, but to instead to bring us some soup, bread, and bite-sized pre-packaged cheese he served to us at breakfast. I stay up a little later and finally get to bed around 9:30 pm.

Day 4: Basecamp to Imlil
25,447 steps, 9.9 miles, 10 floors

The trek down was a lot easier and faster on the way down. We didn’t make many stops, and the one we did was so that I could buy my yellow Mount Toubkal souvenir shirt. We passed the same villages we saw on the way up and then had a nice lunch at the riad we stayed a couple nights before. I am contemplating staying in Imlil for a few more nights to enjoy the mountain life, but I heard the weather was supposed to drop and get quite cold. Instead, I joined Nina back to Marrakech where we would later have dinner over the next couple of nights.

In total, I took 81,687 steps, walked 55 kilometers, and climbed 279 floors. Not too shabby for a California girl going on her first winter altitude trek on North Africa’s tallest mountains.

It starts off by me standing on the outside of a silver Toyota Prado 4×4 holding onto an “oh shit” handle with my left hand and the roof rack handle with my right. My feet are firmly placed on a slim running board while the rest of my body presses against the driver’s side door like a starfish, and I’m asked to hand over my phone.

A stalky man dressed in a blue djellaba and black headscarf puts the car into drive and starts to peel out up and down the orangey-colored dunes shouting, “Ahhfreeeeekaaaah!!” while I’m holding on trying not to fall.

“This would never happen [legally] in the states,” I’m thinking.

Moroccan music plays in a medium volume in the background, the skies are bright blue, the weather is warm, and there isn’t anyone else in sight. This is life. This is living.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee!!” he screams.

My thoughts are interrupted by the fine orangey-colored sand gripping the tires behind me. We drive near someone’s campsite, and a dog about the size of a small poodle begins to chase us. If we don’t go fast enough, the dog might just have enough opportunity to sink its teeth into my ankles. We eventually outrun the dog, and his barking comes to nothing but a faint stop.

We go up and then down again. Up…shit, a second dog. A similar sized dog chases us and this time starts to gain on us. The other dog finds his way back and then buddies up from the opposite end. I’m coming up with alternatives in my head if either dog catches up, but then we roll down another hill and then up another.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee. Ahhfreeeeekaaaahh!” he repeats, keeping watch of the dogs from his rearview mirror.

Sneaking in a quick shot after outrunning the desert dogs.

About a half an hour later, we roll down a hill into a campsite with 16 white tents. This is going to be my home. I learn my driver’s name is Hsain and he shows me my tent, the fourth one on the left side. He quickly inspects the room, peeks behind the partitioned curtain where the bathroom sits, but then tells me the room is not ready and proceeds to cross the camp into another tent.

My replacement tent had a queen sized bed and twin in it. I’m not feeling the vibe as much and hesitantly put my bags down before finally admitting I liked the other room better and wouldn’t mind waiting for it to be cleaned. He calls the housekeeper a few tents away and speaks Berber to her. He tells me it’s okay and then carries a long table near the bonfire circle and places it in a shaded area with a chair for me to wait.

Hsain apologizes and tells me he needs to pick up other guests. I sit in the shaded area swatting the occasional fly and then pull out my laptop from my backpack recalling how many countries and mountains this bag has traveled with me. I then begin to extract my memories from Mount Toubkal less than a week ago and the panoramic mountain views at the summit. My calves are still slightly sore, and I can tell my abs feel stronger.

I’m tired. All I want to do is sleep. One of the male staff calls me and tells me my tent is ready. It’s next to the one I initially wanted, but I think I’ll like it just as much. It’s almost 4:00 pm now and I can’t wait for my nap. I fall flat on top of the bed with my arms extended out, set my alarm on my phone, and close my eyes falling into a deep sleep over the next 40 minutes. Sigh. This is exactly what I needed. It’s so silent here.

I eventually wake to faint voices. Tourists must be coming back from their day trips. I open my eyes and look outside the tented door I never closed and see some Chinese people on the hill above. I get up and look even closer outside and see another Chinese woman to my right swinging on a porch-like bench studying her phone.

I lie back down and continue to peek at the family on the top of the dune from a distance. They have a child about 4 years old who is dragging his butt down the hill making one continuous line. They’re paying no attention to him, and he runs back up to do it again.

I’m still not in the mood to deal with all the beauty and instead am finding the comfort of my own tent to be exactly why I came here. The sun begins to set, and I step out to the restaurant to ask what time dinner is being served. 8 o’clock. There’s another Chinese lady on the carpeted runway to the restaurant having her photo taken by her boyfriend in her Berber garb and running shoes. Her outfit doesn’t really match how natural she is trying to photograph. Imagine a runway model trying to do the catwalk in New Balance walking shoes. But to each’s own. I was at least able to capture this improv photo soon after she left.

My friend, William, video calls me after I briefly comment on his Facebook wishing him a Happy Birthday. He’s my first virtual guest in my tent! We keep losing a signal, and the call keeps getting dropped, but we facetiously blame it on the LA rain and not the fact that I’m in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

8 o’clock quickly rolls around. I’m about half finished with my bottle of wine I bought from a restaurant earlier, so I’m feeling pretty relaxed.

I am the last one to stroll into dinner and am greeted and then seated alone. I am smiling and observing each of the couples and groups. I am the only solo traveler here. Should I feel lonely? Psh. Lonely is for kittens. I am a cheetah. To my left sits a group of Chinese with the child I saw earlier and his back facing me. He is immobile and hasn’t moved, so I’m wondering if he has fallen asleep at the table while his parents pay no attention to him again chatting with the other adults. Then there is a Chinese couple next to them. They sit side by side, and the man has one of those Berber scarfs on his head paired with his prescription lens glasses over his eyes. He’s feeling the Berber part. A Chinese Berber man. It actually suits him well. Then working my way to the right of them sits a black couple. They’re the only black people in here, and I wonder if they might be from London considering our proximity and their fashion sense. The girl actually looks more mixed with very fair skin but with an afro hairdo. Her boyfriend has dreaded-like hair. Then moving again to the right sits a wealthy looking Chinese couple. The man is groomed well and put together nicely in his black knitted shirt and his wife graciously uses her eating utensils on her plate. They are sharing their dishes, and I can silently see them exchanging few words perhaps discussing their thoughts on the meal. “What is this?” I overhear them ask the server. “Couscous,” he responds, and then they nod their heads in approval.

My first course is a bowl of vegetable soup. I’m served the same bread I find all over Morocco, but this time it came with olive oil and white vinegar instead of balsamic vinegar. Interesting. I like it just the same. I get a good whiff of the olive oil and then taste it. It’s clean, aromatic, and a little sweet.

The soup is pureed and green. I’m not sure of the contents, but I’m enjoying it and finish it. It’s now my turn for a 7 vegetable couscous salad. It’s the best I’ve had out here, and I suspect it must have been cooked in a broth or stock of some sort. I am stuffed by this point and regrettably have to tell my server I won’t be eating the main course. My server continues insisting I stay and only have a couple bites, but I can’t. I’m so full! So I tell him I’ll be right back and never return. I felt bad, but I’m here for a few days and will leave more room for tomorrow night.

I later hear “Cee!” then again, “Cee!” I jump out of bed, and it’s Hsain, my driver and who I now learn is the camp owner. He checks in on me asking if I need anything else and offers to bring snacks. I’m so stuffed, but I suggest I might be able to wiggle in a few peanuts into my stomach to go with my wine.

The bonfire goes on outside, and I’m listening to the steady drumming from the privacy of my tent.

It’s between 10-11:00 pm and Hsain returns with a spread of snacks: a bowl of peanuts, a variety of olives, a bag of chips (that his staff wanted but left behind) and dried fruit. This is VIP service all the way that I wonder if anyone else is getting the same treatment.

I invite Hsain to join me for some snacks while I sip on my wine, and I didn’t realize it before, but he is actually quite funny. I was laughing most of the night in his company hysterically. He tells me I am to be treated like family and to make sure I leave a great Airbnb review. That’s always the disclaimer, but he would undoubtedly be getting an excellent review for throwing the good-natured vibes my way.

Tears continued to roll out of my eyes from laughter throughout the evening and while he dresses me up in his black headscarf. Admittedly, I don’t think black is my color!

Having his company wasn’t something I anticipated, but having him around brought a lot of warmth and comfort into my stay. It turned out to be one of those things I didn’t realize I needed, but it was what I needed – especially after a slightly awkward lonesome dinner.

I’m finding myself falling more in love with Morocco as time passes. I’m coming up on my third week, and Moroccans have been so honest with me. A taxi guy drove out of his way to drop off a hat I left in his car, the sunglasses and credit card I lost that were returned, and even the young guy who guided me through a labyrinth of alleys to my hostel and didn’t ask for money. Then there’s the Atlas Extreme guy who kindly lent me a sleeping bag, beanie, and gloves for my winter trekking trip to Mount Toubkal and the two guides from Morocco Daily Tours, who bought my friend and me dinner one night in Gueliz. Moroccans have been very generous and hospitable to me.

It’s getting late, and I finally make it to bed at around 1:00 am. I knew I wouldn’t bother getting up early for the breakfast buffet, but Hsain was kind enough to have his staff keep the buffet out until 10:00 am for me. VIP, I’m telling you! It’s such a wonderful feeling being spoiled and getting the royal treatment, and that is exactly what my first day impression was glamping in the Sahara Desert.

Tagine is one of Morocco’s most notable dishes. It’s aromatic, zesty, and spicy. The cuisine offers a diverse range of ways it can be prepared from more meat-inspired stews to a bountiful display of vegetables. No matter what you order, this national dish is bound to put you in for a delightful surprise. But where can you find the best tagine Morocco has to offer? It goes without saying that you can find the best tagine in homes of Moroccans and not in a restaurant. So when I was invited for a cooking lesson at the home of a Berber family in Merzouga, I was excited to not only learn the ways of making traditional tagine, but also to be able to taste the difference between homemade and restaurant tagine. 

The mid-morning begins in the traditional mudbrick home of Mona and her family. It sits within a compound that her brother and businessman, Hsain, built in addition to the Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. I am welcomed in smiles by Mona and her two shy children who peak their heads around the corner to see if I’ll notice them.

While Mona prepares mint tea and snacks for me, the two girls finally gain enough confidence to shy away from the shadows and sit on the couch next to me. They give me a light hug and then we use our hands and facial expressions to communicate. I point to the older girl and raise my hand counting my fingers suggesting they show me how old they are.

I hold up five and the other girl mimics my hand with two fives and then a three. Then I learn the other one is nine.

I’m sitting in their version of a living room. The walls are furnished with long cushioned benches around the room with pillows. It’s always a little cold in the Moroccan homes I’ve been in, so I came prepared with socks and an extra jacket.

Mona takes a seat next to me with a small dish of almonds and peanuts and then sits down a tray with a tea kettle and Moroccan tea glasses. It’s always a little awkward thinking about what we’re going to talk about when there’s a language barrier, but she breaks the ice and pushes the tray of nuts toward me to eat. I grab a small handful of nuts while she pours the tea.

She gets up to bring out a blue plastic bowl of unpeeled vegetables soaked in water. I intently watch her peel carrots and potatoes in a rhythmic motion with a small peeling knife toward her chest. She then starts slicing the carrot, zucchini, potato, and onion in her hand instead of using a cutting board. I was especially impressed when she minced the onion into small pieces in a chopping motion while cupping the onion in her hand. She didn’t ask for my help and I knew my translation would be lost if I tried to ask, so I continued to study her instead.

We move into the kitchen with her two girls and I take a seat on a short one-foot stool next to a very short table. The clay tagine is placed on the table and she adds a little olive oil to the tagine along with a layer of minced garlic. There’s a clear plastic bag of seasoned chicken sitting off to the side that she pulls out and centers in the middle of the pot. 

Tagine looks pretty simple so far. From what I’ve read it should be as easy as a slow cooker.

Mona smothers the chicken with onions and then begins layering the rest of the vegetables in chronological order: carrots, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and sliced lemon. The children grab some spices from nearby and help sprinkle parsley, paprika, cumin, a green powdered spice, and ground saffron on top.

Mona’s brother, Hsain, returns and helps by pouring a small amount of hot water from the kettle in the clay pot. They cover the tagine, put it on the stove, and let it cook for 45 minutes. 

I thought I’d have some lag time to sit and chat, but instead was asked to follow her outside to a small mudbrick structure. I peak my head in trying not to hit my head and see three other women besides Mona sitting lined up against the wall.

I’m watching from the outside for a couple of minutes until one of the girls moves and points to me and then points next to Mona where she was sitting. I understand the gesture and sit next to Mona, who’s in charge of the fire, getting a pretty good view of the clay oven they use to bake bread.

The three women all had bread pies about the size of a large pizza gathered under the blankets and then handing them to Mona one-by-one.

I meditatively gaze at the bread rising into a big bubble and then watch Mona twirl it in either a clockwise or counterclockwise motion and then pierce it with a stick when the bread expanded too much.

She grabs some flimsy twigs that are used to keep the fire going and then uses her two sticks to pull the bread out. She drops the bread on a nest of twigs that lay next to the oven and repeats.

The bubbly pie flattens on its own after it cools down and the woman to my left picks it up and begins to sweep off both sides removing any dirt or debris before placing the deflated bread in the basket hidden under the blanket in front of her.

After around five pies, Mona moves away from the fire and the girl to my left takes over. I notice she’s a little slower than Mona. She does look young and I imagine she’s still working on her skill set as Mona has probably done for many years already.

We leave the other women and walk back to her home only a minute away. The tagine is still cooking and the two girls left for school. There’s Mona’s third daughter who returned and she looks like she might be the middle child among the three, which I was told is the lucky child to be in a family. She smiles at me and puts on a kid’s sing-along program on their 13” bulky TV. She’s also a little shy in the beginning but then her mother gets her to warm up to me by showing me one of her art projects. She’s painted decorations and dots onto a piece of white fabric about the size of a book.

The little girl then places a drawing of a blue river with an apple tree on the living room table in front of me but runs across the room still a bit shy and sits in a chair on the opposite corner. I notice the palm of her hands are covered in something orange or red and ask Mona.

“Henna.” Mona explains.

Progress! This is the first word Mona communicated that I understand.

Mona leaves back to the kitchen and the little girl comes with her backpack filled with markers and colored pencils. She pulls out a blank notepad and rips the first two pages off. She didn’t like how her paper was torn so she crumbles it up and tries again. Success. She’s now ready to draw and dumps her markers and pencils onto the table.

I pick up one of the wadded pieces of paper and open it up to draw on, but she pulls a fresh piece of paper for me to draw on instead.

I started drawing a dolphin hopping out of the water then moved onto drawing fish with stripes in a very elementary way. She continues to draw another river and apple tree on her piece of paper but this time with a sun on the upper right-hand corner.

Her dad gets home and sits beside her watching her draw.

I decide to add some land to my drawing and draw a brown line above the water and plant a few palm trees to the right. Then I decide to draw sand dunes in the background merging ocean and desert.

It’s missing something. A camel.

How do I draw a camel? The wifi isn’t working so I pull up a video of a camel I saw earlier in the day and put it on pause trying to replicate it the best way I knew how. The little girl curiously and intently watches me draw as I screw it up. It’s not making out to look like a camel so I adjust until it sort of resembles one. She’s miraculously inspired and asks her dad to draw one on her paper.

Lunch is ready.

We set the table and gather around the table.  A small dish of assorted olives is placed on the table along with hand-pulled pieces of warm bread from earlier, and a small dish about the size of my hand filled with chopped green pepper, tomatoes, and onions.

The tagine is centered between us all and the lid is removed lending a zesty and aromatic fragrance to the table. I wait for them to go first so I can follow their lead. Each tears a piece of bread and dips it in the broth. This goes on for several minutes that I’m wondering at which point we eat the food, but I follow along.

Maybe they’re being polite and waiting for me to go first?

I don’t budge and finally see the dad grab a piece of bread, cupping it into his hand, and then using the bread as a utensil to grab some vegetables.

I follow suit and it’s my tagine epiphany moment.

“Whoa! This is so good. So damn good. This is what it’s about. I get it now.” I’m thinking.

The zest from the lemon added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish. The flavors of the spices, citrus, and vegetables had the perfect amount of time to marry allowing different flavor profiles to stand out on their own.

“This is so damn good.” I repeat in my head.

They see me struggling a little to pick up vegetables and come back with a fork and plate to help me. I’m determined to keep trying though, but I did occasionally resort back to my fork.

I am stuffed beyond oblivion but they keep adding more food to my plate as they share from the tagine. I point to my stomach and rub it in a circular motion moving my head from side to side saying no more.

They finally felt like I had enough to eat and then bring out a large bowl of fresh fruit, very traditional for Moroccan dessert.

The little girl grabs a banana and cuts it in half to eat and then grabs a whole one for me to enjoy. Oy, I don’t think I can handle a whole banana.  The dad offers me a tangerine. I’ve become quite fond of the tangerines in Morocco; they’re always so sweet and juicy. The little girl looks at me disappointed I didn’t eat her banana and points at it, so I agree to appease her by eating half.

After lunch, I help clear the table with the little girl while Mona does the dishes. The little girl then helps me find a broom with my sweeping motions I used to ask her. We finish cleaning in time for my ride back to the camp and part our ways.

Having the opportunity to learn how to cook one of Morocco’s most notable dishes in an intimate family setting is always a special experience. I now understand why having a meal in a Moroccan family home is incomparable to restaurants. When you allow awkward communication barriers marinade with something familiar and relatable like family meals, it becomes one of a kind. Can you think of a time you experienced this was true? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Nomad is a word I used to throw around loosely, but after meeting this nomad family, I finally have a better understanding of what it means to move from place to place as a means of survival and not out of having wanderlust.

It’s been 21 days since I’ve been in the Sahara and I really haven’t seen much. I’ve been avoiding much of the tourist attractions and using my time to instead rest, read, write, and repeat.

I’m collaborating with Hsain, a former nomad and current business owner of Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. We’ve finally gotten past the formalities of treating me like a guest, I help myself to the kitchen for snacks whenever I want, and now we can engage in deeper conversations about the behind-the-scenes operations of running a luxury desert camp and, what I’m here to talk about today, nomad life.

I’m introduced to Mohammed, an older man with clearly defined wrinkles on his face that looks plenty hydrated.

“This man has four wives. He eats a lot of couscous at night!” Hsain points teasingly at Mohammed.

Mohammed doesn’t understand English, but I assume Hsain translates because Mohammed quickly smiles and then laughs showing me all of his yellow teeth.

Hsain and I walk around the nomad village and he points out one tent that works as a pantry and another used for cooking. There’s a clay oven much like the one I saw during my bread baking lesson only smaller and with tiny stones added.

“When it’s windy, they use this gas stove. When it’s not windy, they use wood fire to cook.” Hsain explains.

I see a little girl with a faux fur lined hood and bare feet running at us from a distance, but my attention is diverted when I see a couple of baby goats. They’re so cute! I know, I’m being a typical girl.

Hsain picks up the brown one and puts it into my arms and I hug it tight against my chest.  He picks up the white one and then tells me to hold them both. My heart is melting when the white baby goat opens his mouth wide in a bleat sounding almost like a human baby. They are only three days old and you could see the dry umbilical cord still attached.

I goat double the love.

Now that I got over my animal fix, we join the nomad family for tea under an open shelter that’s shaded by tarped blankets made from wool and goat hair. I notice many of the ropes are also made from the same fur.

Mohammed pushes a small tray of nut-sized snacks for me to try and then pours each of us a round of mint tea. The tea is less sugary than I’ve had lately. I’m enjoying this cup more than the others I’ve had recently and make it a point to compliment it.

I’m sitting there and listening to my friend speak in Berber without a clue of what they’re talking about. The little girl finds us and finds a place right next to me.

I’m relishing the moment but at the same time I want to ask a lot of questions to understand more about the culture without being too inquisitive. There’s that fine line of being in the moment but also taking advantage of an opportunity to get to learn something new.

At one point in our conversation, Hsain mentions “We have no pharmacy here. The government won’t provide us with one.”

In a way, I don’t know that they need one. I’m reminded that everything they use to treat their illnesses is natural. I asked what pregnant women do when they’re ready to give birth.

“When they’re ready to give birth, they let their people know, and then we get them comfortable and relaxed enough to have one. No hospital.” explains my friend. ‘It’s not like modern [Moroccan] women in the city who have it this way…” he points to his stomach as if he were making a slit for a C-section.

“How are the roles broken up between the men and women?” I ask.

“It’s traditional. Women take care of the house and men work outside. It’s not like modern people. It’s a lot simpler. They don’t have same problems like modern people. “

We might have a lesson or two to learn about nomad culture. Their presence feels like one of a wise man: few words, an abundance of smiles, simple, honest and happy.

“At what age do they start grooming the children to start playing a more prominent role?” I start digging some more.

“Nomad children don’t have an education, you understand? They sometimes have a mobile school come by and will teach what they can, but they don’t always know when that is. The school comes when they can. “

My question wasn’t really answered but I let it go. He did further explain that sometimes there’s an opportunity for the nomad children to leave their families and get an education like he and all his brothers did.

Mohammed continues to refill my tea glass. I’m drinking it much faster than everyone else. This isn’t the first time I notice how quickly I seem to finish my tea next to Moroccans who seem to take their time and sip a lot slower.

Mohammed’s wife sits in silence off to the side and her swaddled baby is now asleep on her back. The little girl is feeling less shy and pokes me. I’m playful back putting my hand high for her to slap and then pulling the ‘down low, too slow’ move.

The ‘down low, too slow’ has a universal playfulness. I don’t know why but kids always seem to get a kick out of it. She then pulls my hand and observes my half-worn red nail polish and then puts my hand back down.

Hsain gets a call from his dad, who is still living his life as a nomad and hands the phone over to Mohammed. Mohammed puts the phone to his ear and begins talking loudly as if the recipient was a few tents away. The phone is on speaker and I don’t understand what’s being said but it sounded like a lot of teasing and a lot of laughing.

“He knew my dad from 40 years ago in Algeria as nomads.” Hsain explains.

Our pot of tea is finished and our little dish of nut-sized snacks is empty so we felt it would be a good time to leave.

We stand up, say our goodbyes, and then I’m huddled together in a group photo with the entire family. One thing I am reminded at the very end is, “Moroccans do not have poor people. Everyone has food to eat.” and this is true. There’s no reason to feel sorry for a nomad for the way that they live. If anything, I think it should be taken as a lesson conceptually as way to live.

I recently got a job as a divemaster on a liveaboard in Hawaii and one of my guests told me I absolutely had to dive in Cozumel when I told her about my upcoming trip to Playa del Carmen. Because she and I bonded overseeing dozens of dolphins together along the Kona coast and that she has over 2,000 logged dives – I felt her word could be trusted.

I’m sitting in the passenger side of a Robson R22 and my fingers go “click, click, click” against the key. I then hear two blades spinning above like the windmills at sunset in the Mojave desert. 

I’m feeling very Amelia Earhart at this moment. Like a boss. I completed my safety checks from the interior, pushed a few buttons, got us up in the air, and now I have full control over the steering.

Taking a helicopter flight lesson is the most exhilarating activity I’ve tried. Forget skydiving, jumping off of bridges, leaping from the world’s largest swing into large canyons, or swimming with humpback whales. This is it. This is my defining moment.

Overlooking the panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps of New Zealand has me sold.

It did take me a little bit of research and thought about whether or not I wanted to get my fixed wing or rotor wing private pilot’s license (PPL). What helped my decision are the types of activities I could do with a rotor wing. But even before that, I got the idea about taking flight lessons when I thought it would be cool to be a skydiving instructor. Then I was thinking, ” Why be a skydiving instructor when I can be a pilot instead?” That later manifested into, ” Why be a fixed wing pilot when I can be a rotor wing pilot?”

Helicopters can go forward, backward, and from side to side. It doesn’t require a long landing or lengthy runway to get up. With a PPL you can take your friends’ heli-skiing (collaborating with RedBull adrenaline adventures is another dream of mine), go island hopping, or land yourself on a yacht.

I have this pipe dream of being a Divemaster, wino, and pilot. Imagining myself in Santa Barbara’s wine country (Solvang or Los Olivos) and parking my chopper there overnight with guests enjoying our favorite wines and then hopping over to the Channel Islands for some camping and scuba diving.  Pipe dreams can become realities though. All you need to do is have a vision, take that first step, and see where it goes.

 Do you have a pipe dream? If so, please tell me about them in the comments below. 

I never bothered to plan out my travels from the beginning. Maybe I was still feeling a little burnt from my last job where planning for others was a huge role I played. So by the time I hit the road, I just decided to wing it. I didn’t put together a budget. I didn’t set a time for how long I was going to be gone. Instead, I said I would just go with the flow according to my comfort level and see how long it lasts me. It’s more fun that way, right?

I can hear all the Type A personalities disagreeing with me right now.

I didn’t set any goals or budget because I wanted to see what level of comfort I couldn’t live without. What I learned is that I’m not in my twenties anymore and some luxuries are now very important to me – like having a nice meal and a bottle of wine – or finding a comfortable short-term apartment during parts of my travels to offset some of the sometimes annoying shared living. I learned that I had gotten too comfortable to some of the modern luxuries that as much as I tried to be a responsible budget traveler, I just wasn’t being real with myself. I had a nice job with a nice apartment in the city and that is something I have become accustomed to. Maybe because I know how great some things are means I don’t want to continue missing out on those things just because I want to prove I know how to be a budget traveler. Sure, I can rough it from time to time but the reality is that I don’t always want to! It’s not a rat race to see who can go the longest but instead, a personal journey of oneself and I don’t feel guilty that this is the traveling style I choose.

What I learned about myself is that I like getting mani’s and pedi’s abroad. I want to get my hair done. I want to buy a new dress to feel pretty. I like my down comforters when I travel. I want to buy that better than the average bottle of wine and complement it with cheese and charcuterie. I do like roughing it when it’s for the sake of adventure, but that’s about it!

Couchsurfing is an amazing community when utilized the way it was intended. Unfortunately, some give it a bad name. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking about using the Couchsurfing community to support your travels and the 7 types of Couchsurfers you either need to be wary of or grateful for.

1. Your Highness

The “Your Highness” host is pretty easy to identify. They have dozens of positive references to paragraphs and paragraphs of rules in their profile. They expect you to read through their entire life story, and they run their account like a business. You fill out an application that feels like pages of essay writing explaining why you’re the right surfer for them BEFORE you even know if they have availability. If you don’t follow each of their rules, they’ll shred you a new one throwing their pompous “I’m a veteran Couchsurfer and have traveled all over the world” in your face, and it’s people like you that are the reason they’re so downright annoyed. When you apologize for not reading through the entire profile and explain you were traveling between countries, they fire back saying all the other Couchsurfers made them a priority followed by a  “Patooey! You despicable nobody!” in your face. Ouch. Forget that you’re a newbie getting a feel for the community, or that you’re in limited wifi zones with little accessibility to email. You’re scum in their eyes if you don’t follow THEIR rules!

2. The Moocher

These are the takers. They rely on the kindness of others to support their freeloading lifestyle. They will stay at your home well past the initial agreement drinking all your booze, scavenging through your cupboards, asking for rides, and skillfully using your money instead of their own because they’re just too damn cheap and entitled to have to use their own money. They’re the ungrateful type and like a leech sucking all your time, energy, and money. You don’t even understand how they convinced you to sleep on the couch while they slept in your comfy bed. But what they will offer you are “insightful” conversations on why they don’t need money to travel. Yeah, that’s because they’re taking advantage of the kindness and money of others you self-absorbed bastards! 

3. The Flake

The flakes are the inconsiderate wishy-washy type. After receiving dozens of email requests from people asking you to host, you finally select one who seems genuine and feels like cool peeps. You decline all the requests to help others because you’ve locked in this one. You give them directions to your house mapped in detail and even take a day off from work because their flight gets in the morning and you don’t want to leave them stranded with all their luggage. All is good, and you’re waiting for them to land while you finish up washing linen for them so they can have a nice, pleasant stay at your home. You’re waiting for a couple of hours after they said they would arrive but no sign of them. You’re wondering if maybe their flight was delayed or if something bad happened, but you checked, and their flight arrived on time. You email them, and then they reply, “Oh sorry. I found somewhere else to stay.” Assholes.

4. The Creeper

Eww, the creepy perverts. It was only a matter of time before the creepers found it’s way into a trusted travel community. These pieces of filth are the type who will be so enthusiastic about you staying at their home offering you a ride from the airport, show you around town and even take you out to dinner. There’s only one problem, though. They only have one bed, and it’s a twin. Somehow their couch disappeared from the living room, and that means you’ll have to share the bed with them. Oh, shucks! But, hey, why don’t you have some cheap whiskey to relax you. These situations usually turn out bad when they use Couchsurfing as a way to get sexual favors in return for them giving you a place to stay. STAY AWAY FROM THE CREEPERS.

5. The Closet Surfers

These are an interesting bunch. All is good when you arrive, but things get sketchy real fast. You come in at an odd hour of the evening and are required to stay in their room during the stay. Schedules get locked in about what time you can use the shower or even brush your teeth. You have to keep real quiet, so their roommate doesn’t hear you. Wait a minute? Doesn’t your roommate have a right to know that some stranger is staying in their home? Then it’s further explained that their roommate doesn’t agree with Couchsurfing, and they don’t want them to know. Awkward! 

6. The Jaded

The poor jaded people. I really empathize with them after hearing their stories. These are the early adopters who have seen the community changing and now have to put up with the “Your Highness,” moochers, and creepers. They rarely go on Couchsurfing anymore because their experiences are more often a waste of time for them because the people no longer lack sincerity. I guess this is what happens when a community gets too big. You get a lot more sour apples that ruin it for the bunch.

7. The Small Percentage of Cool People

This is the tiny percentage of cool people left in the Couchsurfing community. They’re the type who bring you a little housewarming gift as thanks for allowing them to stay at your place, offer to take on house chores or even cook you a delicious meal. Anything they can do to show gratitude. You exchange interesting stories, lots of laughs, and the type you’ll find yourself wanting to be lifelong friends with. Or if not lifelong friends, a great experience to add to the memory book with a full belly. The experience was a win-win for everybody.

It was into my first 3 months of traveling and my hair was bugging! The last time I had a proper (I use that term loosely) cut and color was almost over 6 months prior during my trip to Argentina in the small town of Puerto Madryn. I never got around to cutting my hair before I left, I had split ends, and the color was looking pretty washed out and blah. I needed a new look.

It was the first time I wasn’t working in about 8 years and my previous job was pretty conservative with the dress code, so I thought it would be fun to get a little wild with my hair to express the creative freedom I was feeling. I found myself in one of Kuala Lumpur’s multi-level malls and I passed this one hair salon that looked pretty hip. The female hairstylist had an asymmetrical bob cut with inspiring highlights of blue. I knew right away she wouldn’t play it safe with my hair and that I could trust her. So  I make an appointment and she has me come back in an hour.

I really didn’t know what I wanted. At first, I was thinking highlights of red with fiery highlights of copper. But then I told her to just get creative with it. She brings out some hair swatches and then we decided to get crazy with pink! I never had pink hair. This is kind of exciting! What if I hate it? It’s pink so I know it won’t be long before it eventually washes out. After a couple of hours, my hair is cut shorter and my hair is red with one big pink highlight. I take one look in the mirror and take a deep breath. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I pay the woman, walk out of the mall, and am feeling a little self-conscious about what the locals might think. I’m not sure how Malaysians react to such radical hair, but if she can have blue then I can have pink. It’s late when I get back to my guesthouse and I sleep it off.

The next morning I do a little city exploring, but a torrential downpour of rain hits and I scurry inside the closest building I could find inside of a bank. There was a little cafe open and I decide to grab some tea and wait for the rain to stop. I started looking at my hair again and began to really like it. It was bold, risky, and fun – just like how I was feeling at the moment. I’m going to rock this do! Not long after, I take a selfie of me with my new look and post it to Facebook (drum rolls). I initally thought I might get a few “meh’s” from my conservative friends but I also knew I’d get some support from my liberals. Boom! Posted.

It was only a matter of minutes before I get my first comment from a friend I’ve known for almost 10 years telling me how ridiculous I looked. At first, I thought he was being facetious and I jokingly respond back about how much I like it. Then he continues to throw some rather harsh feedback telling me that pink is for kids and that I need to change it back. Ouch! Thanks for your very blunt remarks. So I send him a private message asking him what’s up and he ripped me a new one. Yikes! Really? Well, I’m feeling expressive and this is how I’m expressing my creative mood. If you don’t like it then keep your feelings to yourself or stop being friends with me. Not long after I found out we were defriended from Facebook. WOW.

I began feeling a little self-conscious after that thinking maybe I do look ridiculous, but I like it and I know it’s only about a month before it washes away. I started observing Malaysians in stores to see if I’d be treated differently and it was quite the opposite. I actually received a couple of compliments! Why couldn’t my friend be accepting of this temporary phase of mine if this very conservative country could be? Later I checked back on my Facebook account and received an overwhelming amount of support from friends and family telling me to “do me” and forget his harsh criticism. So I did and I didn’t lose any readers like he said I would because of it.

Indonesia has everything. They have impressive volcanos for trekkers to world-class beaches for mermaids, but what they don’t have is a strong culture in is meat – especially beef and pork. If you lean heavily on the carnivore side, take into account my perspective on 5 reasons to avoid meat in Indonesia.

1. It’ll Never Taste the Way You Expect

Indonesians don’t understand beef and pork like Americans do. Unless you’re in someplace like Bali that’s swarming with restaurants opened by foreigners – that tenderloin you just ordered is only going to disappoint you. It’ll either be too tough to eat, a sorry slab of cardboard, or grey in color.

You might be thinking, “That’s okay. I’ll find something familiar like a McDonald’s.” I remember my first trip to Bali in 2000 and it was my first time in a country so different from the Western world. I went weeks eating all the street food I could find until I eventually suffered a week-long sour stomach in Ubud. When my friend and I made it back to Kuta Beach, I was stoked to find a McDonald’s (something familiar). I ordered a McChicken sandwich and, when it was given to me, my sandwich was much smaller than it’s original stateside version, the meat looked super skimpy, and it didn’t taste like chicken.

Are you enamored by all the free-range chickens running around? Very organic, right? Wrong. Some of that plump chicken breast you’re so used to eating will come out looking like a weenie runt on that chicken satay you just ordered,  if it is even chicken meat. It could be chicken organs too.

2. It’s Hard to Find

If you find yourself in the countryside of Indonesia, what’s the first thing you see? Likely rice fields and skinny chickens, but almost never cows or pigs.

If you can’t stomach another plate of chicken [organ] satay, that flyblown fried fish will be served with all of its organs and head still attached. Eat the eyes for good luck!

3. It’s Low Grade

Cardboard slabs of grey meat. Need I say more?

4. Mystery Meat Posers

I spent one month of volunteer teaching English in a small village outside of Yogyakarta. I stayed in a beautiful home with an upper-class family who had a personal chef. They wanted to please me so badly that when they asked me what my favorite meal was, I gave them an honest answer of filet mignon. The chef went out of his way to please me and one night surprised me with the most tender filet mignon I ever cut. There were a few white circular rings on it that I was trying to overlook. Is it ringworms? It’s Indonesia and the quality is never that good, so whatevs. It’s super tender to cut and when I put the most delicious piece of steak in my mouth, I almost vomited it right back onto my plate. Something is not right.

The next morning my chef asked me why I didn’t finish my meal. I told him it tasted funny. It was then later explained to me that it was cow lung that I was served and not filet mignon. Gross.

5. A Constant Disappointment

On my first night staying with an upper-class Indonesian family on Java, they welcomed me to some local snacks they prepared themselves. It was my first night in Indonesia after spending two months in Thailand (imagine all that yummy foodie goodness I just came from). There were two plates on their living room table. I didn’t want to be rude and picked up a small piece of omelet with a couple of other snacks. I take a bite of the omelet and I’m not really that impressed. I unintentionally put the egg back on my plate upside down and notice a bunch of tiny black things mixed in with my egg.

They see me staring and examining, and then respond with, “Termites.” in Bahasa language. Later it was explained to me that during the rainy season they catch them to add extra protein to their meals. I think I’ve had enough protein for the night. Thank you.

Who loves bacon? Nobody does bacon better than ‘Merica. Extra crispy? Apple chip smoked or maple flavored soaked? Bacon vodka. Bacon chocolate. Bacon Bloody Mary’s. We have too many delicious variations in our motherland that when you order it here and are served a flaccid looking piece of near pink meat, it’s just screaming disappointment.

Needless to say, the meat selection in Indonesia is not Travel Marinade approved.

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