This was not the fancy tourist bus station. There was nothing fancy or even civilized about this bus station in Marrakech and mine was the lightest, blondest head in the place. Even with my shesh wrapped around my painfully distinct features, I could feel every eye in the place on me as soon as I negotiated my fare and stepped out of the dirty yellow cab. I slung my small, bright yellow pack over my shoulders and confidently made my way through the masses to the interior of the station. My peripherals and sight line were attuned, not only to the signage that would lead me to the right counter, but also very aware of any potential trouble around me. I was not afraid of or intimidated by the Moroccans, I had been in Morocco for 3 months and had come to see them as one of the most gentle and hospitable people I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering on my travels. But any smart and travel-savvy woman alone in a foreign country is constantly on her guard and ready to dodge and weave her way out of trouble or confrontation.
After approaching three ticket counters and being pointed to yet a fourth, I managed to haggle for my ticket in terrible bits and pieces of French and Arabic. I guessed they figured that if this petite blond girl with the bright yellow backpack had the wherewithal to try and get to Ouarzazate with the local traffic, she deserved a break. It’s also possible they felt guilty about their game of pointing me back and forth from the ticket counters like a pinball. Regardless, I was pleased with the price at a fraction of the tourist ticket and made my way out to the line of buses, none of which seemed to be headed for Ouarzazate; either that, or all of them were headed for Ouarzazate. Again, feeling like an abused pinball, two of the six bus drivers I asked actually pointed to the same bus, so that’s the one I picked to board. I grabbed a window seat and sent out a little prayer and some hope that in a few hours I’d actually make it to my destination.
Weeks prior, I had been on this same, breathtaking route up through the narrow winding roads of the Atlas in an SUV on a work related road trip and witnessed the most stunning views I’d ever seen. This time I was in large, uncomfortable bus, but I was on my own time and able to train the entirety of my focus on the desert around me. The narrow, winding road led up to impossible heights inside the snow capped peaks . I had been captivated for months by those peaks that hung over the city of Marrakech in a surreal way, almost like a royal city or castle in the sky. The country of Morocco is incredibly beautiful and diverse in its landscape. It provides layer after layer of natural beauty and architectural surprises the farther you carve into her, and this trek was just as thrilling as the one I’d taken over the same terrain weeks before. I was thrilled because I knew that on the other side of the flat desert and snow capped layers of the Atlas Mountains, the great Sahara Desert lay in wait.
My first experience of the Sahara Desert weeks before had taken me completely by surprise. I had never been in a place that made me feel as small and humble. The rolling dunes of soft, fine sand mesmerized me and I traversed among them feeling like the only person on Earth. The place was peaceful and serene and seemed to hold some kind of tangible power. I’d run up the dunes, fallen into the sand, and just sat there grinning, letting the powdered granules fall through my fingers, the texture seeming to me a cross between powdered sugar and silk.
I loved every second of my experiences in this country. I loved the grizzled but playful cab drivers and how the price of everything from a toothbrush to a hotel room had to be scrupulously negotiated. I loved the vibrant colors of the textiles and crafts in the medina. I loved the taste of the sweet mint tea and the pungent flavors and spices in the tagine. But I especially loved the land and I was so excited to be going back into the powerful Sahara to bask it its expansive beauty.
Six hours later I did, fortunately, arrive in Ouarzazate, the Gateway to the Sahara. I climbed into a diesel SUV alongside 4 new travel companions and we set off for my beloved desert where I would begin one of the greatest adventures of my life.