157 miles as a direct line, the 10 hour bus ride to Zagora was very long. Not only did the bus stop several times along the way, but it was slow moving through the Atlas Mountains. Imagine, if you will, a dilapidated Greyhound bus traveling through mountains on a one-and-a-half lane road, with hairpin switchbacks. Liz’s ability to sleep just about anywhere served her well. Me, on the other hand, I could not get comfortable. The stops I remember were at this little town about 2 hours in, just before the mountains, with various food shops on both sides of the street. Then there was a longer stop at Ouarzazate, and at Agdz. Right around that last stop was when sunrise happened, which revealed a beautiful landscape. We were past the main mountains, into rolling red hills, and along a very narrow, very lush, river valley, dotted with blocky settlements built out of clay,
We finally arrived in Zagora, and our new friend Ali invited us to his friend’s shop so that we could drop our bags, change into clean clothes, and relax with some tea. We also had a very simple and tasty breakfast of bread, omelette with cumin, and avocado shakes. While we waited, we bought a couple of head scarves for our trip into the desert, and I bought a huge mirror. This turned out to be the most egregious purchase of the trip. The initial offer was 9000 dirhams, or $1170. Had I actually thought about this at the time, I would have realized just how ridiculous this was. I talked him down to 1800, or about $230, but later found out just how ridiculous even that was. I was clearly taken advantage of. On the upside, however, the shopkeeper did let us keep the mirror and our purchases from Marrakech in his back room while we went to the desert, and he did an amazing wrapping job on the big mirror, such that I was able to carry it on 3 buses and a plane without breaking it.
After breakfast and before starting the final leg to M’Hamid, the real end of the road, Ali took us to a nearby campground to relax for a couple of hours. Prends Ton Temps is this wonderful gem that I expect most visitors to the area never find. It is run by one of the friendliest people that we met, a Tuareg musician named Belaide. His warm hospitality was characterized by his deep voice, a mix of Bobby McFerrin, James Earl Jones, and Louis Armstrong. We also met Ali’s girlfriend, Nezha, who was also an amazingly generous and caring person. We hung out with her under a tent and relaxed for awhile, talking about our mutual pasts, and our experiences thusfar in Morocco. We listened to music, and were introduced to Tinariwen, a group that blends traditional desert music with modern influences. After such a wonderful chill time, we had a lunch of chicken tajine, couscous, and more delicious pomegranate. Then Belaide brought out his oud, Ali picked up a drum, and they played live music for us.
Finally it was time to continue on our way, and so Ali called a cab, and we took a 2 hour taxi ride to M’Hamid. Ali put us up at the being-built Sahara Services hotel just outside of town, where we dropped our bags. We then went into town to talk about setting up our desert adventures, after which Ali invited us to dine with his family. While we waited for dinner time, we hung out next door at his cousin’s souvenir shop, where we got a low-key introduction to the world of Moroccan carpets. He and his helper laid out rug after rug on the ground, one on top of the other, showing us the differences between Tuareg, Berber, Bedouin, Haratine, Nomad, and Kasbah. We realized fairly quickly that we liked the first two styles, but we resisted the urge to buy any rugs during our trip.
Then we followed Nezha to the home she and her two children shared with Ali, his parents, and his three younger siblings. We walked down dark sandy streets, our first introduction to the Saharan sand. It was fine like playa, but not without that silky alkali texture. Their home was simple; a large central anteroom, with smaller rooms off of it. The livingroom floor was laid out with carpets, there was a tea chest and a small TV in a corner, and a decorative bellows hung on the wall. The five little kids were running around, interested in having visitors, and Ali’s mom made tea. Watching her perform the tea ceremony was mesmerizing. She fanned the coals with the bellows, and when the water was at the right temperature, performed an intricate ritual. First there were the tea leaves, then she would take a big block of sugar and would break off large chunks and drop them into the pot. She added these amber crystals that I would later find out is the resin of the Acacia tree, which grows in the Sahara. This tea was notable in that it did not contain mint, as it is what the desert nomads would make. When the tea had steeped, she would perform a complicated set of pourings into and out of the glasses and the pot, until all the glasses were filled. They are small glasses, generally about half filled, and there were about 3 or 4 iterations of this. Nezha said that they have tea 12 times a day for good luck, and I was unclear whether this counted as 4 or 1 of them.
After tea and the children went to bed, Ali came home and we talked for awhile until dinner; was a delicious beef tajine with potatoes and olives, which we ate in a traditional fashion, with our fingers using bread to scoop up the stew. And finally, we ended with the usual plate of fruit, including more pomegranate. It was such an unexpected honor to be welcomed into their home, to share tea and a meal, and to watch the inner workings of the family. While men typically are the business owners and the leaders outside, the women rule the roost. And kids are kids.
Stuffed and happy, we walked back to where we were staying on the edge of town, guided by the moon.