Final Moments

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After a quick rest, we head down to explore a bit of Casablanca.  Nihla wanted to try Paella and I, unknowingly, ordered shrimps.  Not really a big fan of them.

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As we were eating and people-watching, I was also deep in thoughts about the 3 weeks away from home. Reflecting on the many lessons that He presented to me in the most beautiful ways, especially lessons on giving and rizq.

Timely to my thoughts, a man approached our table and looked at me. I couldn’t figure out what he was saying initially till he repeated “aqua”. I remembered crying in my heart, in nervousness and gratitude, as though He was telling me “Here’s your final test.” Somewhat shakened by my own thoughts, I poured water into my glass and gave it to him. Not wanting to look him in the eye, I continued talking to Nihla as though no stranger was there.

He finished the glass of water, then he walked away casually. He didn’t ask for money, he didn’t grab our food and belongings. He only asked for a glass of water. The old me would have probably ignored this stranger.

Never expect Thank You. Now I understood why, very clearly.

15 May 2015, Thursday

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This is it. The last day of an amazing journey. What have I learnt? Put trust in Him. Allah ma’ana, daiman.

We’ve been blessed to meet wonderful and kind people like the Korean guys in Madrid, Hanna and Maryam in Granada, and in Morocco – Fathiah, our dearest brother, Said, Hassan, Raoul, Mercedes, Khalid and Saad.

I will never forget the joy and laughter Nihla and I shared. The giggles when people asked if we are from Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan (?!), Somalia, Ethiopia and never Singapore.

He is indeed the Best Planner. I couldn’t have asked for a more enriching, learning and somewhat emotionally sacred journey.

This journey reminded me of a Rumi’s quote “What you seek, is seeking you.”

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Emotional Encounter in Casablanca

14 May 2014, Wednesday

Habibah, the staff at the Riad assisted with the luggage. She’s a young 28 year old mother with an 8 year old son, Muhammad Amin. We tried to communicate in the most basic Arabic. Francois called Habibah to apologise that she couldn’t send us off. How sweet!  While we were about get in Said’s car, I heard someone calling out my name. It was Saad who waved like how an old friend would.

A 3hr journey from the imperial city to Casablanca on the highway.  Said broke the news that it would be his last day with us, as he has another client.  He told us that he felt that he wasn’t working but on a holiday with his sisters. Alhamdulillah. It felt too short, really.

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Peak hour – traffic jam, cars honking. A preview of city life to prep us for the reality back at our fast-paced hometown the next day.

hassanII-iI couldn’t wait to see the majestic Hassan II Mosque which used to be the 2nd or 3rd largest mosque in the world after Masjidil Haram. We arrived just shortly before Zuhr prayers (the mosque is closed to visitors during prayers). So we missed the entrance to male’s hall.hassanII-v

After about 15 minutes or so in the mosque compound, I heard Said’s voice from behind us. “Girls! Would you like to pray Zuhr at the mosque?” Allah answered our prayers! We agreed to meet again at 2pm.

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We realised much later that we left our prayer garbs in the car. Confidently, I thought, they might have some at the mosque. After ablution, we took off our shoes near the escalator. I asked from the first woman I saw at the praying area, in my elementary level Arabic, for an abaya. She signalled there was none and willingly handed me her beautiful woven shawl which comfortably covered my hands.

While waiting for Nihla to complete her prayers, I sat beside this kind woman. She asked me where I was from and my occupation. I couldn’t figure out her 2nd question. We giggled and she leaned over from her chair and hugged me (I was sitting on the carpet). She kissed my cheeks and touched my face lovingly like a grandmother, and said “Anti jamilah.” I could only say to her “MasyaAllah. La anti kazalik. Syukran.”

She asked the same question again but this time her colleague who speaks clearer Arabic, tried to explain and included doctor, teacher? I don’t know how to describe my job so I just agreed when she asked if I am a student. Hehe.

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“Min balad?” she asked and then went on to talk about my trip. She was proud to hear that I’ve visited quite a few cities in Morocco. Heavy-hearted, we had to leave. I gave her a hug in return for kisses.

Back in the car, Said asked “Solatu? (Prayed?) How was it?” I told him about the lovely encounter. He commented “When you are nice to people, they will be nice to you. You girls are real Muslims.”  I was puzzled.

He then told us of his strange encounter whilst waiting for us. He said that after he dropped us off, a much older man (a tour bus driver) approach him and asked if he was with us and whether we are true Muslims (i.e. if we are practising Muslims)? Said replied yes (masyaAllah…insyaAllah). The old man continued to remind him to take good care of them and Allah will reward you.

Said, shocked by this reminder from a stranger, shared that sadly, it was his last day with us. To which the man consoled Said by saying that it was ok and he was sure Said has taken care of us well.

Nihla and I were trying to stop our tears from flowing down. I told you…this was a spiritual journey.

Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes to Said, our little brother and travel companion of almost 12 days.  I hate goodbyes.  I don’t think I can ever be a tour guide.  I get attached to people too easily.
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The Medieval City of Marrekesh

43 degrees celcius – the temperature that welcomed us in Marrakech/Marrakesh. We alighted near the main square and dragged our luggages to the riad.

At Riad Argan, we were treated to Moroccan hospitality of sweets and mint tea. I was getting used to be royalty! I must be really thirsty that I had a few rounds of tea. While waiting for Francois (owner), we hanged out at the courtyard like old friends, talking about families and life. Francois came and immediately Said switched to French. I wish I had such linguistic skills.  Francois briefly shared that she visited Singapore in the 80s.

Our home for 2 nights. Pretty romantic I must say. They had wanted to arrange for the beds to be separated to 2 single beds but we didn’t mind. 🙂riadargan

After a short rest, Francois showed us the way to Jemaa el-Fnaa square from our Riad and even recommended some restaurants.

Took a snapshot, in case we lost our way.marrakech1

Marrakech was an all day fiesta – a pasar malam (night market) and Lau Pa Sat (a food market in Singapore).  marrakech4

Tourists and locals. Buskers, henna artists, OJ sellersmarrakech5

As the night falls, the square transformed into a food fest.marrakech2

13 May 2014, Tuesday

Our local guide, Saad, came early to the Riad to bring us for a walk. Along the way, he told us many stories of Morocco and his work (of translating Arabic text to French) to topics such as Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Ibnu Rushd, Imam Malik, etc. A learned man and a storyteller. A Japanese-speaking Moroccan too!

Around the souk.marrakech6

Loving the natural light marrakech10

Nuts and dried fruitsmarrakech9

We visited the beautiful Madrasa Ben Youssef, which exudes much charm. Reminded me of Madrasa Bou Inania in Fes.

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The courtyardmadrasa2

Amazing architecture
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The view from a classroommadrasa4

One of the classroomsmadrasa5

Reminded me of Alhambra
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Natural light
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Saad asked if he could bring us to Marrakech Museum, which used to be the home of the royal family. Of course, we were fine with that! 
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If only, we can have such a courtyard in Singapore homes!museum1

The lamps and the classic water pointmuseum3

Saad took us to a bakery which had a wide variety of Moroccan sweets. Reminded me of the sweet shop, El Abd, in Cairo. We waited for Said to fetch us at the cafe. He talked about his sons, Muhammad and Abdul Aziz (10 and 8yrs old). He mentioned Muhammad goes for Tajweed and Tartil classes. He also sent them for swimming and horse riding lessons. We each insisted on paying the drinks, but in the end the waiter took the money from us, and told Saad that his drink is on the house.

Last minute photo with Saad.saad

Instead of Said, his elder brother, Hamid turned up in front of Club Med. I spoke to Said on Hamid’s phone and apologised for not being able to see us as he had to settle some car matters.

Hamid brought us to the Jardine Majorelle, filled with tourists. If you are a flora, fauna fan, you will love it here.  Errrrr…We took less than an hour. marrakech11

Back to the square! A few hundred metres away is the Kutubiyya Mosque which means booksellers. Read from the previous link for more info!

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The famous minaret. A meeting point for many I’m sure.mosque

We had a good lunch at a restaurant, facing the square. marrakech8

Moroccan lamb stew – perfect choice as it tasted like the Singaporean dish, mutton soup (sop kambing) which I was craving for at that time! Our staple in Morocco – the thirst-quenching Fanta lemon. 

I was trying to record the azan (call to prayer). Apologies for the background distractions as the waiter was busy chatting with me.

We went to the souk again after Maghrib for last-dirham shopping and had my Harira soup at the square.harira

The stallmarrakech12

The sight at night. It reminded me of Newton Food Centre in Singapore. With a few sellers approaching you at one time, enthusiastically promoting their food.jamaaelfna

One of the entertaining performances.

Tips
– Do not take photos without permission. They will require some “baksheesh” (tips).
– Be sure to have enough dirhams with you.
– Purchase argan oil from licensed co-op.
– Bring your lodging details with you, in case you lose your way.

The Goodbye

We then drove through the High Atlas mountains.  A local tried to guess where we were from. Two hijab girls – one tan, the other fair. The last guess was hilarious – Japanese! I got a lot of that too in Egypt. And another popular assumption, “Oh Singapore, in China.” Hahaha

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How great is He and His creation. Sometimes it takes a journey, to remind you of this Divine existence.

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“Have We not made the earth as a bed, and the mountains as pegs?”
Surah An-Naba’ (78, Verse 6 – 7)atlas4
I shuddered to think of how it would be if this giant creations crumble.

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We stopped over a restaurant for lunch. We shared a table with Raoul and Mercedes. Struggled to converse with Mercedes in my zero knowledge of Spanish language.

I purchased argan oil at the shop next door. So sweet of all of them to wait for us. As Nihla and I were making our way to the car, Raoul came over to us and said (in his best attempt to speak in perfect English) “Girls, I don’t know if we will meet again…so, you know when you are ever in Spain, our home is open for you.” Ok, I have to say I almost teared.

“I give you my email address.” Raoul continued.  Mercedes reminded Raoul to give us their phone numbers. I didn’t think of giving mine as I thought, when will they ever come to faraway Singapore. But Raoul said “How about yours?” I happily gave of course.

Raoul extended a handshake, bidding goodbye. I asked for Mercedes (who disappeared within minutes,apparently to smoke). Raoul brought us to Mercedes and we exchanged hugs and kisses.

Raoul and Merces are heading to Marrakech but a different riad, hence the goodbye. I sure hope I will get to meet them in the future, in Zaragoza. That means a 3rd trip to Spain 🙂

Fortified City

12 May 2014, Monday

Endless horizon no more. The last day of peace and quiet.

Went down for breakfast alone while Nihla gets ready.  I needed the time to take it all in. It was sunny but appreciating every single second of it. Birds chirping, roosters crowing, lambs bleating. It can’t get anymore authentic than this.  Simplicity of life is divine. The riad was not grand, but I just love the hospitality. It felt homely.

Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah, our next destination.  A distant view.ait5

It’s a compulsory visit in between sahara and Marrakech. This earthen clay architectural site is a popular location for many films such as my favourite movie, Kingdom of Heaven.  There are still a number of families staying in this fortified city.

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Taking a shade from the harsh sun.

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The local guide gave the tour in English and Spanish (for Raoul and Mercedes). We had great fun touring around with Papa Raoul and Mama Mercedes. They sure know how to pose for pictures!

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A piece of art using tea, saffron and sugar.aitben1

From the peak, looking at the bridge where we crossed earlier.ait4

Ait Ben Haddou from the topait3

The alley in the ancient city.ait8

While gulping down Coke and Fanta lemon in the scorching weather.  An opportunity for Raoul to tell us more stories.  Mercedes said in Spanish, he loves history and talks a lot! Treated them to the drinks as a gratitude for this new friendship.ait9

What I respect most about Morocco is every single person I met, sings high praises of their beloved country. The government is also putting in a lots of efforts in restoration and conservation of ancient monuments and landmarks.  It is important to preserve the country’s heritage, the national treasure. Otherwise, generations to come would be clueless of the country’s beginning.

I can’t imagine Morocco without its stucco carvings, mosaics, marble pillars. I wish these could be the same for Singapore, though I could understand the reason of land scarcity.

Important
– Comfortable shoes, good for walking
– Bring water to hydrate yourself (obvious tip)
– Prepare some tips for the guide. We usually would keep loose change and tips in another wallet for easy access.

Onward to Ouarzazate

We continued our journey to Ouarzazate (war-za-zat).  In Berber language, it means “without noise”. We passed by more kasbahs, which looked like whimsical castles.

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Opportunity for phototaking.

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We stopped over at the Rose Valley.  It was a nice stroll, with Papa Raoul leading the way.  He picked roses for us.  The first and probably the last time a Spanish man gives me flowers! Hehe  Nihla and I are used to call him Papa Raoul, of course not in front of him!

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I realised how I literally, have never stopped to smell the roses before. I almost forgot how fragrant roses are. I kept the rose that Raoul gave in my bag and it smells of yardley talcum powder!

With the jovial Mama Mercedes who only speaks Spanish, so Papa Raoul had to be our translator.

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We stopped by for a meal break. Nihla and I bought drinks and junk food only. Raoul and Mercedes who had salad and Moroccan bread, invited us to share.  How can I not warm up to this sweet couple. Love seeing how they tease each other #lifegoals Hehe.

Riad Bouchedor our last accommodation in rusting living, away from the bustling city.  After checking in a few hotels, Nihla noticed that Said would always inspect our bed and bathroom. Haha.

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Dinner was served at the hotel’s restaurant.
riad1I couldn’t sleep that night. Thinking of Aisyah and her children at the cave home. And I wasn’t ready to live this quiet place for the big cities.

Laila sa’idah. Good night.

People of the Cave

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11 May 2014, Sunday

Little did I expect, this drive off the beaten path, would open my heart and eyes to learn a valuable lesson in life. My ultimate intention this time. It was a rocky ride into villages made of clay and then into an empty land.

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Outside the cave home, Said immediately carried a cuddly little lamb.He immediately held out, signalling me to carry the lamb.  Of course, I declined and was laughed at.

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We were invited into the Berber nomad cave home. Said introduced us to the family – Aisyah and her 2 children, Abdullah and Tarbuk (I think). Raoul, Mercedes and Hassan joined us as well.

Here’s their kitchen.
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Their living room, bedroom and dining area.

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Aisyah served us hot mint tea and had a second helping. Said was our translator when I had questions from Aisyah as they could only speak berber Arabic.


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Said shared with us a story of a 72-year old Berber nomad. When asked why he didn’t want to stay in a big house in the city, he replied that everyone will leave this earth and return to Him, regardless of his status.

I teared in my heart. A sudden gush of insaf or repentance.  It would be too embarrassing to cry in front of everyone.  How often do we drown in the world of materialism and place priorities on things that are of least importance. We forget that we are travellers in this passing journey. Our scale of needs and wants tilts to the dunya.

Through Said, I was told that they do not go to school, they can’t read or write. He watched a documentary before which tells of how teachers from the city, gave up teaching the nomads as they were not used to the lifestyle.

They lead a simple life in the cave. They prefer it to the desert where heat can be unbearable. Here, they have access to the well which is about 4km away and a nearby market. Winter could be pretty harsh for them as the cave’s entrance would be covered with snow. Aisyah said she loves the peace and quiet, but would love some noise just like today with us coming over to her place. I told her I prefer otherwise.

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I went out for a while with Abdullah and his sister giggling at my antics – grabbing my bag and running away from the lambs.

nomad9Back in the cave, I signalled to Tarbuk to sit next to me. I showed her the shots I took of her, and she gave the brightest smile.

Raoul shared some stories of historical Spain, with Said translating it to me Surprisingly, I could pick up some words. At one point, Hassan yawned. Mercedes spanked him jokingly like a mother would. Funny bunch of people!

Hassan signalled that it was time to go. Frankly, I didn’t want to leave. I could stay all day with the family listening to their stories and even Raoul’s stories. Nihla and I felt bad for not bringing anything for them. So we gave the oat biscuits to the children.

Their smiles – sweet, innocent and priceless. I will never forget, ever. An expression of innocent love and gratitude.

I really wanted badly to hug them but I wasn’t sure if it’s appropriate.  Not to comfort them but comfort myself. As we were leaving , a man from a neighbouring village came to by to give some clothes to the family. How thoughtful. And I brought nothing.

As we walked to the car, the lambs that took shade by the car, left…as though they understood we were leaving.

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I told Said “Hazihi tajriyyah ro’iyan” (this is a wonderful experience). A humble one in fact. It’s life for the nomads. We find it tough but they love it. I begged Said to bring me back to this family,the next time I am back in Maroc, inshaAllah.

When we were driving out through villages, kids waved excitedly at us. An adorable little boy stopped us and asked Said for “stylo” (I think). Said searched and passed him a pen and drove away.  Another reminder of selfless giving and letting go. Back in my office, I will frustratingly search high and low for my favourite pen.

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Allah put me in a faraway land and taught me to be grateful and reminded me that my problems are small. It took me less than half an hour but miles away from home, to understand the true meaning of syukur. A lesson that I hope I will never forget.

“Leaving the people and places you love, is a reminder of the impermanence of this life. And the permanence of the next.” – Yasmin Mogahed

The Valley

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Onwards to our next abode, Xaluca Hotel, we passed by “sandcastles” (I nicknamed them cos they look like that from a distant).

The majestic rock formation in the valley was a sight to behold in comparison to the skyscrapers back home.

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We were greeted by the sights of families having picnic, and others doing their laundry by the river.  Dad would probably have a dip.  Breathtaking.  I enjoyed the short walk. Much needed after the bumpy camel ride.

Our conversation in that ride was on our first desert experience.  How we couldn’t sleep cos of someone snoring away loudly. Haha.  After a week of spending time together, the three of us have bonded well.  It was like 3 friends on a road trip.  Be nice, be kind and be good.  And others would do the same.

“Came as travellers, leave as friends.” quoted from Said, my rather profound guide, my multi-linguistic teacher, a brother and a friend. 

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My family stayed at Xaluca in their trip last year, which I persistently declined, to the disappointment of my nieces.  Travelling in big groups is just not for me.

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Xaluca has an awesome view of the kasbah and villages.  We sat at the terrace enjoying every single sight we could capture.  I swore I could hear Said telling his friends at the nearby room,  “Apa khabar?” –  a new word Nihla and I taught him, which means “How are you?” in Malay.

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Sunset has got to be my favourite time of the day.  A magnificent sight. A reminder that time will pass, wounds will heal, a new day will come.

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For the first time in Morocco, we had a buffet style dinner.  Bumped into Hassan at the restaurant, who could only say to me “Hey Su! How are you?” He was obviously the joker amongst his friends!

I tucked in early that night and almost missing our morning prayers.  I felt refreshed but my body was aching slightly probably due to the long camel ride and lack of sleep the night before.  Need my caffeine booster.

Met Said at 10am.  I am glad he agreed to converse in simple Arabic with me instead of English.  We waited for the Spanish couple (Raoul and Mercedes) and Hassan who we would be travelling with.

Lessons in life come in different forms.  Unexpectedly, the subsequent destination brought about a deeper sense of spiritual reflection.

Night in the Sahara

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Hotel Nomad Palace, a meeting point for travellers heading to Merzouga campsite. Said introduced us to Hassan, his cousin, and we met other travellers.  (Life comes with surprises, and little did we know this was the beginning of beautiful friendships)

The room that we were brought to for a quick shower and prayers, had an open concept toilet.  Only curtains covering the WC and shower area.  Kinda uncomfortable since we are not used to it, but not all rooms are like that. Take note! Quite honestly, I was nervous about the desert stay.  I’m so particular about washrooms, tendency not to sleep well in tents, etc. It’s been a while since I went for camps!

Past 6pm, it was time to ride on the camels. 1.5hr ride to the campsite! No wonder Said warned us it could be our first and last camel ride.  The last time I rode on an animal was 4 years ago, on a horse in the outskirts of Madinah! I get very nervous with animals. We aren’t really best of friends. Haha.

The first thing that came to mind when I was struggling to get on the camel, was “how far and for how long did the Prophet travel?”

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“In the name of Allah, and Praise be to Allah. Glory unto Him Who created this transportation, for us, though we were unable to create it on our own. And unto our Lord we shall return.”

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I got restless. I couldn’t sit still. And I kept looking back cos Nihla’s camel keep getting closer and almost kissing my camel. Hilarious! Well, we survived the ride.  Stopped for a while to capture a beautiful sunset.

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The night at the tent was a bit different from what I imagined it to be. I was craving for grilled lamb (a whole lamb!). But well, our group was too small I guess. We had rice with beef tagine and fruits. Due to a miscommunication, we didn’t take bottled water from Nomad Palace, thinking there will be supply at the tent.  Apparently, not. I was thirsty! A kind Spanish couple who brought their own wine, gave us their bottled water. We were so thankful for that.

We were entertained by Berbers, playing on their drums and clappers, which I tried and failed miserably. Hindi songs by Indian and Pakistani tourists, even by the local men.  Hindi movies – you have conquered the vast desert!  The tourists were surprised I could sing or hum to some popular songs.

A pity, the camera isn’t great enough to capture the happening night.  A few things I’ve learnt in that one night:
1. Singapore is known as the Far East. Far and expensive (on point)!
2. Lame jokes and riddles are universal. The Moroccan guys told us a riddle that I’ve heard in my concrete jungle. “What are the 2 steps to put the elephant in fridge? How about 3 steps to put the giraffe in the fridge? The animals had a party. Why didn’t the giraffe join in the party?” HAHA
3. Stay in the desert, mingle with foreigners and you’ll master Spanish and French in no time.  Ok, I have to stay in the desert.

It was just 2 of us in the tent of 4 beds. I barely slept cos there was a cat meowing (cat phobia) throughout the night and it felt so near, and someone was snoring loudly.

10 May 2014, Saturday

We were the first to be up at 4am for Subuh prayers. Despite the cold morning, we sat outside staring in awe, the star-studded sky.  Such a pity that the rest of the group missed it. The night before it rained and stars were shadowed by the puffy clouds.

Nearing sunrise, the Spanish couple woke up to catch the sunrise. The husband signalled to me, “Come, see it here!” To think that Algeria was just there across the desert.

I witnessed how the camels woke their owners up. Probably for prayers? Hehe.

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In my zone! 
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It was another 1.5hr camel ride to Nomad Palace.  This time with Raoul and Mercedes.

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The contours on the sand dunes, reminded me of the paddy fields in Bali.  In the morning, the desert sand seems more refined and in a far more radiant orange hues than the previous day.  To witness the changing hues of the golden sand sea was a moment of realisation of His creation.

Here’s Aziz, the camel man (or boy?) who took photobook-worthy photos and even commented “Sony? Good! Japanese camera!”camel3

After a simple breakfast at Nomad Palace, we continued our journey to Dades Valley.

Journey to Sahara

Can’t help but wonder how much I will miss this journey.  Only a week left in Morocco, but at the same time, missing home. Woes of a traveller.  (Lying down on my favourite sofa by the window, overlooking the courtyard in Riad Ahlam).

9 May 2014, Friday

8am – we bid goodbye to Kasim and Fathiah. Looked around the riad, trying to capture as much images as I could, hoping these images would forever etch in my mind.

Passing through Midelt (known for apples) towards the desert, we drove by Swiss of Morocco (Ifran). It does look like Europe – the way the trees are lined up and the architectural design of the houses. Snow capped mountains and some green coated ones, the mid atlas, sheep and shepherds, etc. I was too engrossed and too awed, I didn’t take any photo.  Sometimes, I just want to feel my presence in the “now” reality, instead of looking through the camera lens.

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The camera could not capture what the eyes could see.  The eyes could not see what the heart sees and feels. Words that came through my mind when I thought of my family.  Dad would love it here.  And the brother would capture far more beautiful images.

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Past 3pm, the first glimpse of the sahara – orange dunes, which look like mountains from afar.

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For the first time in my life, I saw a mirage (a true city girl huh?)!  Clouds – closest to them when we are in the plane. But ironically, today, I felt closer to these cotton candy in the skies.  Shadows of the clouds reflected on the empty desert. A beauty beyond description, MasyaAllah. I will miss this empty vast space.  How blessed is this land.

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It’s only my sixth day in Morocco, but I’ve picked up quite a collection of new words.  Perhaps if I stay here for a month, I would be able to converse well in Arabic and Moroccan Arabic?

It’s true, what people say, travelling expand one’s horizon.  It exposes you to different culture.  Nowhere is a strange place, it is just a new place for you to learn from.

Important! 

– Pack whatever you need for a night’s stay in a backpack, in advance.  Stow away your luggage in the car. So you don’t have to trouble your guide or yourself with the luggage or huge backpack up and down the vehicle.
– It can get chilly in the desert. Bring a light jacket.
– Bring your flashlight for toilet visits at night in the desert. You wouldn’t want to wake the desert guys up.
– Mineral water for drinking and brushing your teeth.