For Part I of our Moroccan adventures in Rabat, Fez and Volubilis, click here.
The Sahara awaited us. We climbed into our 4×4 vehicles and drove to our campsite near the frontier town of Merzouga. Soon after we left the paved road, we had our first encounter with the legendary landscape. It was not what I expected, however. We had entered the rocky desert (the “reg”). After another 45 minutes of driving, we finally found ourselves in the sandy desert (the “erg”) of the movies and guidebooks. The wind started to pick up as we spotted the magical dunes in the distance.
We spent two nights in a tented camp. By most objective measures, our lodging was swanky under the circumstances. Each tent came equipped with two beds, lots of colorful rugs and bed linens, a toilet, a sink and a basic shower. Comfortable, right?
Except that Mother Nature decided to give us an experience we wouldn’t soon forget. Persistent wind. Sand swirling everywhere. 105° heat in the shade – we sealed the tents shut and they were stifling. If we left them open, we’d have had newly formed dunes on our beds.
It was during our 36 hours in the desert that I came to truly appreciate the value of intergenerational travel. As the group’s “youngster,” I lived up to being the baby, not just in age but in attitude, too. My fellow travelers, many of whom were significantly older than me, took the intemperate weather in stride. They were rock stars. I was not. I did my best to put on a happy face, but damn, that Sahara climate is harsh.
Which leads me to our impromptu visit with a nomad family our tour leader spotted when we took the 4x4s to explore our surroundings.
They welcomed us with open arms. And mint tea. We met Omar and his wife, and three girls, who ranged in age from 2-11 years old. The eldest makes dolls to entertain herself and the other kids. She allowed me to buy one to give to Sophie, who displays it proudly and prominently on a throne made from Legos. It’s her most treasured Moroccan souvenir.
Omar asked all of us what we do in life. He and and his wife did not understand the concept of retirement. Why would they? From the time they were children and able to walk, they’ve toiled away in extreme poverty under living conditions most of us can’t fathom. And they’ll likely work until the day they die.
When Omar’s wife, who seemed to be around my age, asked me what I did for a living, I told her I was a writer. She then asked me, in all sincerity, if I was capable of sewing a tent like the large structure – made of heavy canvas and different recycled fabrics – we were all sitting in. I observed her handiwork and sheepishly smiled. “I can fix a hole, but that’s where my sewing skills end,” I said. She was not impressed.
More than any other interaction during our trip, it was this exchange that, since my return home, I think about most often. At the end of the day, we humans are all just accidents of biology and geography. Yet the incalculable benefits my family and I derive from our privilege – because of our birthplaces, where we live, the color of our skin, our relative wealth, and our access to education and the Internet – are staggering.
By the evening, the wind had died down enough for us to briefly enjoy the sunset. It was as spectacular as I’d hoped it would be.
We were all lulled into a false sense of security the following morning when we woke up to an eerily silent desert. The air was cool and calm. The sky was bright blue. There was no wind.
It was time for our dromedary (do not dare call them camels) excursion.
With a group of Berber men serving as our guides, my assigned beast led me confidently up and down the dunes. The ride was smoother than I thought it would be, although the descents were a bit jarring.
A few minutes into our adventure, we learned we were in the path of a motocross rally. We shifted our route and took a brief rest just as the competition was getting underway
I couldn’t believe our luck. Sahara Desert. Dromedaries. Motocross rally. Priceless.
After bidding adieu to the dromedaries, we met a farmer who, thanks to the support of the Moroccan government and NGOs, has successfully established a working farm in the desert.
He grows alfalfa and dates, among other small crops, and taught us how to find water using a tree branch as a divining rod. My initial attempt resulted in a broken stick, but practice makes perfect. I eventually felt the pull of gravity, despite my hands’ solid grasp on the two ends of the branch, as the tip – like a Ouija board – involuntarily turned to point towards the ground.
A note on water: in recent years, the government and nonprofit organizations have installed wells throughout the desert. Although people might still need to hike for miles to reach them, the wells make it easier for the nomads to survive in such an unforgiving environment.
We still had another 20 hours or so in the Sahara, but Mother Nature hadn’t finished toying with us. By the time we returned to camp for lunch, we realized a sandstorm was in our immediate future. The prior’s day wind was indeed just a warm-up. As the sand started flying every which way, making it difficult to see and stand up straight, I came to understand what a “Mad Max”-style apocalypse would feel like.
The wind didn’t let up. It got worse. There was nowhere to hide. My mother was convinced we’d be carried away in our tent to the Moroccan equivalent of Oz.
And the icing on the cake? In a place where the average rainfall during the month of May is .23 inches, it rained through the night.
I thought of Omar and his family. For them, this was just another ordinary day in their extraordinary lives.
Yet, we survived. And by the time we reached our hotel in Ouarzazate (which is Berber for “without noise”) the following morning, I almost felt nostalgic for our desert experience. I won’t soon forget the eerie howls of the wind and the blowing sand pounding against the tents’ flaps.
When my mother and I went for a hammam bath at the hotel’s spa, the woman who took care of us mercilessly scrubbed my body with a loofah and exclaimed, “Vous êtes sale!” Filthy, indeed.
By the time we reached Marrakesh a couple of days later, the Sahara felt like a distant memory. The contrast between the desert’s solitude and duochromatic landscape of red dunes and blue sky, and the city’s claustrophobic bustle and technicolor souk, was striking.
I couldn’t wait to explore the medina on my own. And explore I did, spending one morning walking almost eight miles, with no map and no set itinerary. André, a young Berber man on a moped, led me to an artisan market near the tanneries, well beyond the borders of the souk. My halfhearted attempts at bargaining for a pencil case I didn’t really want or need fell flat and I left empty-handed, much to the shop owner’s dismay.
Any worry I had about finding my way back eventually dissipated as I observed residents going about their day. The few men who tried to entice me into their shops (and consistently mistook me for a Spaniard) were vastly outnumbered by the dozens of other people who paid no mind to the sole tourist in their midst. When I needed direction, the locals were happy to oblige.
No visit to Marrakesh would be complete without experiencing the exuberant chaos of Djemaa el-Fna. Vendors carpet the vast square, selling souvenirs, freshly squeezed juice and all kinds of food – a paradise particularly if you love snails, of all things.
Snakecharmers, musicians, jugglers, drag queens, monkeys also have their place…the site is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Feeling brave in such exotic surroundings, I held a snake around my neck for several interminably long minutes. I’d like to brag that it was a cobra. It wasn’t. It was your garden variety sideshow serpent, but I was terrified nonetheless.
Aside from my solo exploration of Marrakesh, I most enjoyed our visit to Bahia Palace, a 19th century mansion built by a rich polygamous vizier. The mosaics and woodwork are divine, and it’s clear that the owner employed the finest artisans of the day to create a monument worthy of his power and wealth.
In the few weeks since we returned home, Morocco has never been far from my thoughts. The people we met, from all walks of life, who have such hope for the future of a country that is both proudly introspective and globally focused. The ubiquitous construction that augurs a brighter tomorrow. Morocco’s fascinating history, which seeps through every wall and alleyway. The incredibly picturesque landscapes that have left me with indelible memories I hope my husband and children will one day experience, too.
Ma’a Salama, Morocco. Until the next time.
Practical Information, Part II
Ouarzazate is booming, largely thanks to the construction of what will be the largest solar farm in the world just a few miles outside the city. Primarily known as Morocco’s Hollywood, the town attracts film & TV crews to its two movie studios, although business has slowed down in recent years because of irrational terror fears.
Hotel: Le Berbère Palace. A sprawling hotel that offers a beautiful pool and a hammam, a not unwelcome discovery after two days in the Sahara.
Restaurant: La Kasbah des Sables. A gorgeously restored and decorated kasbah in the oldest part of the city, you’d never guess from the nondescript street entrance that a beautiful restaurant lies behind the door. The current owner is a French man who fell in love with the place. Our meal was a delightful French-infused feast.
Imik Simik Women’s Association for Rural Development. OAT sponsors this association, which was founded by a group of local women to help members acquire marketable skills and gain financial independence. They are known around the area for their wonderful couscous, which they make from scratch, and their baked goods.
Hotel: Riad Nesma. A lovingly restored bed and breakfast in the old Jewish quarter in the heart of Marrakesh’s medina, with welcoming staff, and a rooftop terrace and pool. A short walk from Djemaa el-Fna square and the maze of the city’s vast souk.
Café: Café des Epices. Nestled deep in the souk, there’s a small square that’s a microcosm of the rest of the medina. I rested my tired feet at this café on my day of solo exploration and took a few quiet moments to observe the people around me.
Shopping: Herboriste de Marrakech. A five-minute walk from Riad Nesma, a great shop to buy spices, herbs and natural beauty products.
We spent one night in Casablanca before our flight home. The highlight of our brief visit to this nondescript city whose outsized reputation was built on the eponymous movie (that was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage): the majestic King Hassan II Mosque built above the Atlantic Ocean. It’s one of the largest mosques in the world. Impressive to say the least, and particularly so under a bright blue sky.