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Mad, Mad Marrakech #RTW

It takes nearly six hours to fly across the Sahara Desert —

—about the same distance it takes to fly across the United States.

Indeed, the biggest desert in the world is as wide as the continental U.S., and from high up in the sky, I was able to take in the sea of sand from one end to the other. Hour after hour, I watched the tan sea of sand below us, interrupted only by the rippled dunes left by long tracks of hot wind. We left Egypt behind us and then passed Libya, then Tunisia and Algeria, landing after dark in the great and ancient city of Marrakech.

Upon arrival, I found Morocco’s most-visited city surprisingly dark and devoid of streetlights. I have been here before, stayed in a tumbledown room in the medina (old city) and wandered the labyrinthine stone streets as if lost in the most frenetic dreamland.

To return again was like revisiting that same dreamland I remember from backpacking days, the streets like secret tunnels offering endless discovery for those who dig deep. Marrakech marked the final destination on our around-the-world by private jet, and for all my excitement and dropping back into the hyper-beating heart of Morocco, I also experienced the twinge of melancholy at the impending approach of the finish line.

I am sure that this an emotion that all great travelers have felt, from Marco Polo to Edmund Hilary, not when they had reached their goal, but just before they achieved it. The sadness of an adventure waning gently to a close was brightened by the drumming joys of Marrakech, a city which for me, seemed like an exclamation point to this round-the-world sentence.

Marrakech is a city of turbaned motorcyclists, cross-eyed snake charmers, thick-lipped camels, burlap bags overflowing with cinnamon, ginger, dried roses, jasmine — windows dripping with silver, and baskets rolling in the lost antiquities of Berber kingdoms past: rings, crowns, necklaces, cuffs, jewels.

Marrakech is the bazaar you always imagined from 1001 Arabian Nights, and as I tiptoed through undefined puddles and dodged the mopeds and animal carts trundling past me, I felt as if I was alive inside any of these old fairy tales and that any minute, I would fall into the plotline of some troubled sultan, be approached by a distressed maiden, conjure up a genie or accidentally purchase a magic carpet.

These were the only (pitiful) orientalist fantasies I could muster in the medina of Marrakesh, but they were revelatory as well, because if travel teaches me anything, it is that I know absolutely nothing. One day in Marrakech and I am confronted by a million reminders of my own ignorance.

I think this is the great excitement and great apprehension about travel — that we put ourselves in a position where so much of our life experience and education and inherent knowledge no longer applies. Suddenly, we are vulnerable to the strangers and strange lands we have encountered, and we can either retreat to our guarded hotels, or else stick our faces inches away from the defanged cobra in the square and ask ourselves, why?

Flying around the world has been one snake-in-the-face moment after another, and I have loved it. While I have learned so much, I have learned much more about everything I don’t know yet. My notebook is filled with a very long list of “Subjects I must read up on,” starting with Korean history and ending with Islamic calligraphy and everything in between.

As comprehensive as an “Around The World” trip might sound, it is quite the opposite. It is only a comprehensive reminder of how infinite the world is, more infinite than our own mortal lives can handle.

That Marrakech should be my final reminder of this fact is fitting. In Marrakech, my mind struggles to keep up, so that even now, I am dizzy with the many moments I lived. I remember being pulled into a dark and empty room, an ancient and crumbling stone box, with blue and yellow star tiles on the floor, and a bearded man pouring mint tea into a shot glass, thrusting it in my hand and the two of us drinking the sweet herbal mix in unison.

You don’t ask questions in Marrakech. You don’t ask who someone is, or whether something is safe. You just do it — you drink the tea.

And that is how I spent my next-to-last day around-the-world. I drank tea in Marrakech and dodged vipers in the Djemma Al Fna and when night fell, I danced with lurid belly dancers behind the flickering light of a bonfire.

Then, I went upstairs in my hotel to pack, only to discover that all my clothes smelled like ginger, anise and cinnamon.

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A man sells spices in the medina of Marrakech (Instagram photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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