My article about Morocco in Helsingin Sanomat

Yesterday my first article that I reported from the African continent was published in Finland. It’s a hotel review of sorts that I wrote for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper (that I modestly like to call “our New York Times“). I contribute pretty frequently for the travel section of HS, often about New York but sometimes about other places around the world as well.

This most recent article was part of a series called “A One Night Test”, where the writer spends a night in a unique hotel  and reviews the experience. I wrote about the dreamy desert oasis hotel of Ait Isfoul in Morocco, where I actually spent a whole week, as you may remember reading earlier.  This was not a story that I pitched myself, but instead one of my editors read my blog post and thought that a write-up of this sand castle would fit well within the “One Night Test” series. And here’s the result:


Unfortunately the print is tiny so it’s impossible to read the article online, and it is also in Finnish, which might be a small problem for some of you. 🙂

But since the article is not too long, I quickly did a rough translation of it for you. Those of you that prefer to read it in Finnish can find the original Finnish version pasted after the English one.

So here you go:

In the sand castle hotel, you’ll even be dreaming of sand

MOROCCO. Even in the pitch-black darkness you notice it. The hotel is like a carefully crafted sandcastle.

The fine sand of the Sahara crunches under our feet and smells in the air when we step out of the desert hotel owner’s black BMW. Millions of stars shine above us – the sky is even brighter than in Finland in the dead of winter. The temperature has gone down to zero. (I’m talking about Celcius here – that is -32 Fahrenheit.)

The main building’s high towers poking in the sky are reminiscent of the palace in Nintendo’s Mario Brothers game where the evil demon is holding the princess hostage. But here it’s not a princess who is held in captivity, but a price of sorts. Kamal Yassine, 26, has inherited the hotel and runs it with four of his friends.

My room is in the annex building. Cold air seeps in through the windows. All three blankets come into good use.

IN THE MORNING the donkey’s hollow cry welcomes the new day. Rays of sunshine light up the room. The walls are made of clay, there’s a blue-orange rag carpet on the floor. The window of the bathroom has been tucked shut with thin pieces of wood and scraps of plastic. Still,  the overnight sandstorm has caused sand to pile up on the floor.

Outside, an unreal view awaits: there are wave-like sand dunes  as far as the eye can see. They start right underneath the window as gentle ripples and grow into 30-meter tsunamis further out.

The breakfast consists of white bread, jam and overly-sugary tea. Our host Yassine has traded his black leather coat for a traditional North African outfit, a mossy green turban and an ankle-length jilaba jacket.

“I didn’t wan’t to scare you with these clothes last night. Maybe then you would have been too afraid to get into my car,” he laughs.

THE DESERT HOTEL stay includes a full board. A room for two costs 15 euro per person, or 30 euro per person with your own bathroom.

In the winter season the hotel is quiet and the host has time to entertain his guests. We go camel riding, admire the sunset from the dunes and listen to Berber songs by the bonfire.

www.aitisfoul.com

AND THE SAME THING IN FINNISH:

Hiekka tulee uniinkin hiekkalinnahotellissa

MAROKKO. Säkkipimeässäkin sen huomaa. Hotelli on kuin taidokkaasti taputeltu hiekkalinna.

Saharan hienojakoinen hiekkaa narskuu jalkojen alla ja tuoksuu ilmassa, kun astumme ulos Ait Isfoulin aavikkohotellin omistajan mustasta bemarista. Yläpuolella loistavat miljoonat tähdet – taivas on säihkyvämpi kuin Suomessa sydäntalvella. Lämpötila on laskenut nollaan.

Päärakennuksen korkeuksiin sojottavat sahalaitaiset tornit tuovat mieleen Nintendon Mario Brothers -pelistä tutun palatsin, jonne ilkeä örkki on vanginnut prinsessan. Mutta täällä ei ole vankina prinsessaa vaan pikemminkin prinssi. Kamal Yassine, 26, on perinyt hotellin ja pitää sitä nyt pystyssä yhdessä neljän ystävänsä kanssa.

Majoitun sivurakennukseen. Viima tunkee sisään ikkunoista. Kaikki kolme huopaa tulevat tarpeeseen.

AAMULLA aasin ontto kiljunta herättää uuteen päivään. Auringonsäteet valaisevat huoneen. Seinät ovat savea, lattiaa koristaa sinioranssi räsymatto. Kylpyhuoneen ikkuna on tikattu umpeen ohuilla puilla ja muovinsuikaleilla. Santaa on silti lentänyt lattialle öisen hiekkamyrskyn jäljiltä.

Ulkona odottaa epätodellinen näky: meren lailla lainehtivia hiekkadyynejä silmänkantamattomiin. Ne alkavat ikkunan alta loivina liplatuksina, kasvaen kauempana kolmekymmenmetrisiksi hyökyaalloiksi.

Aamupalaksi tarjotaan vaaleaa leipää ja hilloa, sekä ylisokeroitua teetä. Isäntämme Yassine on vaihtanut mustan nahkatakkinsa perinteiseen pohjoisafrikkalaiseen asuun, sammaleenvihreään turbaaniin ja nilkkoihin ulottuvaan jilabatakkiin.

”En viitsinyt säikäyttää teitä vielä eilisiltana näillä vaatteilla. Ties vaikka ette olisi uskaltautuneet autoni kyytiin ollenkaan”,
hän nauraa.

AAVIKKOHOTELLISSA on täysi ylläpito. Kahden hengen huone maksaa 15 euroa henkilöltä, oma WC nostaa hinnan
30 euroon.

Talvikaudella hotellissa on hiljaista ja isännällä on aikaa viihdyttää vieraitaan. Ratsastamme kameleilla, ihailemme auringonlaskua dyyneillä ja kuuntelemme berberiheimon lauluja leiritulella.

www.aitisfoul.com

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Salam Alekoum from Morocco!

Hi everyone! Sorry for being out of the loop again. It’s surprisingly hard to get online when you are constantly on the go.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a palace-looking sand castle in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Well, almost anyway. I’m actually chilling in a small kasbah (village) in Southern Morocco in a house made of clay.  But it looks exactly like a fancy sand castle, as you can see here:

And the beige-colored dunes that start right from the backyard look almost identical to those you see in the middle of the Sahara, though we are actually just on the edge of the desert here.

But make no mistake, this is definitely the desert.  The houses are all brown and made of clay, there are camels roaming around, and sandstorms are a true occurrence, not just a song by Darude (who is Finnish, btw!). The pet donkey’s hollow yelling has awoken me every morning this week.

Unlike much of Morocco, this area of the country around the town of Tagounite seems very conservative. The call to prayer fills the air five times a day, the women all wear headscarves or full-on burkas, and men don the traditional outfit of the indigenous North African Berber people. That consists of an ankle-length robe called jilaba and a colorful turban, which helps keep the wind and sand at bay. Some of the turbans include up to nine meters of fabric! Here’s my new friend Kamal in his favorite desert man outfit:

So what exactly is this dreamy place and how did I end up here? After all, just a week ago I was skiing in chilly Finland. Suddenly the white snow has been replaced by various shades of brown, and the risk of running into wolves has turned into a chance to spot dromedars.

Well, the reason I’m in Morocco now is that this country is the first stop on my 3-4-month African tour. This means I have now officially set foot on every inhabited continent on earth, which was my goal for the first three decades of my life. Check!

And how I ended up in Ait Isfoul, the glorified sand castle that also doubles as a hotel, is because of Couchsurfing – Kamal and his friend Mohamed, fun and friendly Moroccan guys in their late 20s, are fellow members of the travelers’ network. They happily welcomed me and a Canadian couchsurfer girl, Melody, to spend a week in their desert oasis which Kamal has inherited from his grandfather. The guys do this every now and then when there’s a gap in the hotel bookings.

The difference between hosting paying customers versus couchsurfers, Kamal said, lies in the group dynamics. Hotel guests often prefer to do their own thing during the day, and will get lunch and dinner served for them. Couchsurfers, on the other hand, become a part of the Ait Isfoul family: we have cooked together, visited Kamal’s family in the nearby town of M’Hamid, gone camping in the deep desert and spent many nights around camp fires together with Kamal, Mohamed, Ibrahim, Mustapha, Hassan and whichever friend has happened to stop by. We also celebrated Mohamed’s birthday with a Moroccan barbeque.

It’s hard to say what has been the highlight of this unforgettable week. It has certainly been a busy one: we’ve gone riding with camels, gotten thoroughly scrubbed at a traditional hammam (bath house) by a feisty local lady, sandboarded down the huge Laabidlua dune in the Erg Chigaga part of the Sahara Desert (which I was terrible at), got our 4×4 jeep stuck in the dunes, learned to cook a delicious chicken tajine, met  a family of nomads… and we even had an impromptu dance party with some hilarious French people who stopped by Ait Isfoul for a picnic one day. Needless to stay, these have been some memorable days!

I’m also happy to report that the Sahara Desert is just as breathtaking as I had imagined. The night sky is the brightest I’ve ever seen (you can spot shooting stars every five minutes!), and the huge sand dunes continue as far as the eye can see. We even spotted a mirage – the heated air truly looks like water in the distance.

There were some surprises too, for example that as of last year they now have cell phone service in large parts of the desert. My phone got better reception there than at Times Square in New York! That was a relief, as I’d hate to get stranded in the Sahara, as beautiful as it is. I was also caught off-guard by how alive the desert was. There was hardly a moment when we were truly alone. Every 15 minutes we would encounter a herd of camels, a group of nomads fetching water from a fountain, another 4×4 jeep… so I guess it’s true what they say: if you get lost in the desert, stay where you are. Eventually someone will find you. (Or not, if this car below is anything to  go by…)

So a huge THANK YOU to Kamal and Mohamed and all their nice friends for all their hospitality. Ibrahim’s cooking is the best, and we will certainly miss the never-ending tea sessions. Hope to see you again sometime!

If anyone is looking for a truly authentic desert experience, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kamal and Mohamed! If you are on Couchsurfing, you can find their profiles here:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/manodayak/

http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=DXBMQ5P&from_search

If you are not into Couchsurfing, but are still  interested in staying in the most peaceful hotel in the Sahara, check out Ait Isfoul’s website for bookings: www.aitisfoul.com