Morocco, Day 6

Posted by Ted on Nov 1, 2007 in Travel

We woke to the sounds of other people milling about for sunrise. We peeked out of a hole in the tent to find that the sun had already risen, so we went back to bed and got up a little while later. Everything in the tent was covered in sand. The wind had picked up during the night, and the morning was extremely windy. After a nice breakfast in camp, we set out on our camels back to M’Hamid. On the return trip, I was mesmerized by the sand flowing like smoke over the dunes and into the air. It slithered on the ground like snakes. The desert looked alive.

We learned that there were several types of Saharan terrain. As westerners, our image of the desert was the dunes themselves, called ergs, however they actually constitute about 20% of the Sahara. Much of it was flat and rock-strewn. After a couple of hours, we returned to the resort just outside of town.

After waiting for the other tourists to arrive, we all were driven to a nearby kasbah for some “local culture”. My first impressions were that it seemed like a large apartment building, built out of clay and bits of palm, and subject to the same labyrinthine design seen in the medinas. We were guided through, and had tea with one of the residents. Unfortunately, it mostly just felt staged for our benefit. We were embarrassed on behalf of the Swiss tourist who tried to insist that the guy sing for us. Then we got a tour of their rug shop, and we decided we didn’t need to be there, and so got a ride back to town. We waited at the cafe, paid for the next excursion, and went to the internet kiosk across the street to check our email. Back at the cafe we had lunch and met dinner. Literally. A hogtied lamb lay in the shade, waiting to be taken out to the desert camp as a sacrifice for the evening meal. We also made friends with the Sahara Services owner’s well-fed black cat, and were introduced to a Canadian tourist who had come South through the mountains. He had been to Chefchaouen, a city that we had hoped to visit, but would later decide to save it for another trip.

Finally, the 4x4s were ready, and we piled into one of them with the Canadian, a French, and two other Europeans, with the still-alive-and-barely-kicking lamb strapped to the roof rack. Not only that, but one of the Moroccan help climbed on top of it, and rode across the bumpy terrain, hanging onto the roof. We drove through and out of M’Hamid, first across hills with shrubs, and then very flat desert with rocks similar to what we’d seen the day before. At some point, the guy on the roof got off, and we acquired another lamb rider. We stopped briefly at an oasis with a brook filled with frogs.

12km further, we arrived at a camp at the foot of Erg Chigaga. It was absolutely stunning. The majestic dunes were tall and beautiful and stretched for miles. After dropping our gear, we hiked up one of the nearer dunes to watch the sunset. It was a hard climb, not unlike trying to walk on the beach, uphill. We shared the top of the dune with Reed the Canadian, and a couple of English girls. With no clouds, sunset was again simple, but what wasn’t reflected in the sky was around us as the sand itself changed colors with the dying sun. We stayed out until Jupiter became visible, and then made our way back down to camp. We had tea, and sat around a hookah with strawberry-flavored tobacco, talking and laughing with other guests and some of the Moroccans. As it turned out, our friend Belaide from Prends Ton Temps was the guest musician for the evening, and we were delighted to see him and hear his voice again.

Then it was dinner, which was actually underwhelming given our experiences thusfar. We got just skin and bones of the lamb, barely any meat in the tagine, not enough veggies, and too much couscous. Afterwards, everyone retired to the fire pit, burning bright and hot in the night. I camera-geeked with Reed for a bit, and then I watched goat belly dance in front of the fire, encouraged by the music of the Moroccan musicians, and emboldened by the spirit of the fire. Belaide named her Fatima Couscous. the former meaning “pretty woman”, and the latter being a reference to the stars in the night sky. I was so proud and thrilled to watch her dance by a fire in the middle of the Sahara, knowing that she was mine, being admired by Moroccan tribesmen as an unexpected surprise; a white woman dancing like an Arab. Belaide had given us other names as well. By day, she is Fatima Berber, and I was nicknamed Chuck Norris, presumably for my fair complexion, beard, and sense of adventure. Other Moroccans throughout the country called me Ali Baba.

As the fire and music died down, we relaxed beside it with Belaide and Reed, talking long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and eventually, so did we. That night was utterly magical. We were both giddily happy, lying beneath the Saharan stars.

(This entire travelogue can be viewed here.)

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Morocco, Day 5

Posted by Ted on Oct 31, 2007 in Travel

We woke up, gathered the laundry that we’d done the night before, showered, packed, and headed into town. As we walked, we became increasingly surrounded by school children. We met Nezha at the cafe, and ate a simple breakfast of tea, bread, La Vache Qui Rit, jam, and hard boiled eggs. We chatted as we waited, purchased a case of water, and then after a bit we got driven to the outskirts of M’Hamid, where our camels and guide were waiting for us. Liz’ chameaux was L’Habir, a friendly white racing camel. Mine was L’Segal, bigger, brown, and the designated cargo camel, carrying our change of clothes, food, and water in two large straw baskets. The harnesses were very different than for horses; leather straps and saddles are replaced by ropes, rugs, and a simple metal T-shaped handle. Despite many warnings of ornery attitudes and a rough ride, they were actually quite comfortable. The worst part was after getting on and before getting off, when the camels would stand up or sit down, pitching us forward or backward.

We then began our desert trek, led by our guide Abrahim. The first part of the journey was through the lush palmerie, the area near the road and where the resorts were built. Next we passed into rolling dunes, scattered with desert shrubs and exposed rock. Abrahim pointed out many tracks in the sand, of people, camels, rodents, and birds. At one point he drew a picture in the sand, probably of a mouse, but it looked more like a kangaroo. We also saw evidence of lizards, which Abrahim informed us were called ‘Desert Fish’. It was so quiet that every sound was amplified by the silence of the desert. The soft plodding of the camels walking across the sand, flies buzzing, the creaking of the leather and wool of the saddles, the whistling of the wind that would sound at times like a busy road, and occasionally the idle singing of our guide. While I’m sure he sang more for his own benefit than ours, it was wonderful to hear, and made the trip all the more magical.

After a couple of hours, the shrubs ended, and there was an area of mostly loose rock where dozens of camps were set up. We went past the first set by another half hour to the edge of some bigger dunes where we stopped at another camp. We had some tea while we waited for lunch in a private tent of typical Berber design; square, divided into two or three rooms, with a larger living and eating room, a room for the preparation of food, and a storage room. Liz relaxed, and I went outside to explore and take photographs. I sat on the nearest dune and played in the sand. Mesmerized, I watched the fine sand flow like both smoke and water. Abrahim finally brought lunch, a simple meal of meat and couscous and fruit. Afterwards, Liz napped and I walked around some more, hiking farther into the dunes, away from the visibility of the tents. Surrounded by nothing but sand and sky was indescribably peaceful.

Finally it was time to return to camp, wake Liz up, and get on our way. The late afternoon sun caused our camels’ legs to grow longer and longer. Shortly before sunset, we arrived at the next camp, a more elaborate dining tent with several smaller sleeping tents. We watched the sun set over the dunes, and with no clouds to diffract the light, the sunset was quick and without fanfare. As night fell, candles and lanterns were lit, giving the sand a warm glow. Then we sat down to dinner with two couples from London and Switzerland, and we traded stories of shopping in Marrakech and camel riding. Apparently they had a much more difficult time of the latter than we did. After dinner, a campfire was lit, and everyone gathered around. The Moroccans sang and played drums with water barrels and clapped, and we joined them. There seemed to be “us”, the locals and ourselves, and “them”, the other European tourists. One by one, the other guests retired, and we stayed out by the dying fire, talking with the Moroccans about America, names, and the desert.

Finally the fire was nothing but embers, and we went to bed ourselves, and enjoyed each other in the pitch black of the tent, in the silence of the Sahara. At one point in the middle of the night, we got up and were rewarded by a moonlit desert, with Orion high in the sky. We saw many shooting stars, and even a satellite. It was so wonderfully magical.

What a great way to spend Halloween.

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