On Another Planet: Sahara Desert, Morocco

2015-03-06 08.07.04We didn’t spend much time in Marrakesh our first night there. We had to get mentally prepared for what was coming. Bright and early Friday morning, the call to prayer woke us up and we got ready for Mubarak to pick us up for our Camel Trekking Tour. We were relieved to see that the other couple traveling with us were Tennesseans, fellow Southerners: Jeff and Debi. We had another companion, Cameron, who is a Canadian student studying abroad in Italy. But our merry band was ready to head off into the desert. 

We first took some very windy trails through the Atlas Mountains, which caused me to stare out the window in wonder and2015-03-08 15.26.20 also take my first hit of Dramamine. I never get car sick, but between the roads and the exhaust, I was feeling a little green.

About an hour into our journey, we stopped for some mint tea. This is a custom of the Moroccan people–to serve mint tea when they welcome you into their home, but it is also a very traditional beverage. Depending on where you get it, it can taste like a refreshing, sweet treat or like gasoline. Thankfully, our first taste was the former.

2015-03-07 18.23.30They also call this drink Moroccan Whiskey. It is traditionally served in a small glass cup which is filled with fresh mint leaves. In the teapot, green tea is brewed (and probably sitting for several minutes past it’s finish time) to serve over some sugar. It tastes like southern sweet tea with mint. Delicious and something we will integrate into our lives.

We continued our way through the mountains, stopping here and there to take photos and 2015-03-05 18.37.22learn a little about the countryside. What captured my attention more than anything was all of the villages we passed. Village to village felt completely different even there was only five minutes of driving between the two. You could clearly see the state of the economy of these places and the society by how the women were dressed. Some buildings were very tidy and bustling with business and the women were in bright colors and high heels. But just down the road be it five minutes or an hour away, women were in full burkas with bushels on their back walking around dilapidated buildings.

The picture to the right is not of the villages. Instead, this is a building we saw in Marrakesh, but I thought it was disrespectful to take pictures through the car window of the villages.

The average pay rate in Morocco is €1 per hour. Seeing this really put a lot of things in perspective like the Hassan II Mosque we saw in Casablanca or even the mosques that were peppered through every village. These buildings were usually immaculate and ornate. Even just driving by, we could see this structure cost more to make than most families would earn in their lifetime. Women were doing laundry in the rivers, which were more often than not, polluted, and men sit on the roadside peddling painted geodes for £1 per rock.

IMG_2182Our first big stop was at the Ksar Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah. This fortified city has now become a tourist trap and film location for several movies over the last 50 years including The MummyGladiator, and Game of Thrones. We were given a guide to have us walk to the top of the hill for the best view of the oasis, but we were first treated to people trying desperately to sell their wares from tea stained paintings of camels to teapots to wooden hide-a-keys. I think we disappointed them as we were not willing to shell out cash. But we made it to the top of the hill and had a full view of the oasis below. It was pretty extraordinary to see green, lush palm trees surrounded by desert.

IMG_2214We made our way back to the car and continued on our way toward the Dades Gorge where we were going to stay for the night.

The gorge was beautiful. We drove to the top for a few more photo opportunities before the sun set completely. The walls of the gorge were solid and red, and I felt like we were inside of the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t believe how enclosed we were and also how quiet it was. We could only hear the babbling river just outside our window.

The hotel room itself was a little less than to be desired, but considering the accommodations we were preparing for the next night, it was a haven. It was so cold at night in this area that we bundled up with every blanket we could find. IMG_2250

Early the next morning, we headed out toward the Erg Chebbi.

This was a more direct route as we didn’t have as much time to play around. But we did take a moment to stop at the La Todgha Gorge. If we thought the Dades Gorge was beautiful, it was supremely gulfed by La Todgha. We were in awe with the magnitude of this place and felt like the smallest people on the planet. Words cannot do it justice, and unfortunately, neither can my pictures, but see below for a taste of the beauty.

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We left the gorge and headed straight for Merzouga, the last stop off before we mount our camels and trek into the desert. erg chebbiThe weather was nice and calm in an appreciated 70s with the sun high. But we knew it was going to freeze once the sun went down.

2015-03-07 15.38.39We met our guides who were in full Berber garb with our five camels. The one I got literally saddled with, I affectionately named Darth because it would breathe so heavily on Jeff’s leg who rode in front of me, but I later decided Hannibal was a more appropriate name because he was the only one with a muzzle. When I asked why, they told me it’s because he bites the other camels. Great…leave it to me to get the feisty one. The poor guy even had to sleep separately from the other camels on the opposite side of the camp, facing away from everything. But then again, maybe he just wanted some peace and quiet from the others and biting his compadre was the only way to be alone with his thoughts.

Riding a camel felt like the worst bucking bronco ride ever. In the sand, their feet sink giving you a false stop as you hold on 2015-03-07 15.44.24for dear life. There is a great shot in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Kate Capshaw pours perfume on her elephant because of their aroma. In the film, I never understood why she was such a girl, but now having ridden one of these creatures, I understand all too well.

IMG_2273We made it about 4 km into the desert when we came across our tents. They were literally a woolen sheet over some metal bars and a separate porta-potty. Not exactly something out of my nightmares, but something close. I tried to focus on the beauty of my surroundings rather than the primitive accommodations.

The sunset was beyond extraordinary. We all climbed up the dune to watch it fall over the horizon and took more pictures than we know what to do with. But once the fireball was gone, the temperature dropped to a cool and refreshing 40 degrees. We bundled up and headed down to what would be our dinner: chicken tagine. It was one of the best meals I have ever had and it was done with a small coal oven and ceramic pot. The bugs swarmed toward our candles as we ate and then we hiked up the dune again to watch the moon rise.

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IMG_2307The stars flooded the sky in what looked like a haphazard pattern of dust on a black blanket. We shivered in the cold as we waited for the moon to rise over the dune, and having just celebrated the full moon two nights before, we were in awe at the shape and beauty. I tried to capture it as best I could with my camera, and it didn’t take long for the light to eclipse the stars.

By the time we headed back toward our camp, the guides were setting up a bonfire and drums for a concert we were front row to see.

The most incredible moment of this entire trip for me happened at 3a that morning. I had to use the privy, and as I stumbled out of our tent into the breathless cold air, I looked around. You can’t hear anything out there. Not a bird, not a car, not an animal scurrying in the sand–nothing, and you can take a deep, refreshing breath with no exhaust, second-hand smoke, or smog. The moon cast a sort of grey landscape on the dunes creating harsh shadows on the sand. I felt like I was on Mars. If it wasn’t so cold, I would have stayed out there and just looked around. But wearing already three layers, I couldn’t sustain it.

At 530, our guides woke us up for a quick breakfast and sunrise show. We probably climbed up the dune a little fast since we had to wait another thirty minutes in the cold for the big ball of fire to make its appearance, but every second was worth it. The sky subtly changed from violet to blue to pink to orange. One direction was the sun while the other direction, the moon still hung high overhead.

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We made it back to Merzouga on our camels understanding a new meaning to saddle sore and into the car we went for the 12 hour drive back to Marrakesh. While I appreciate being able to shower and sleep in a proper hotel that night, the long, windy, exhaust-filled drive, I could have done without.

2015-03-09 10.12.18Our last day was a quick one. We woke and headed straight for the Old Town Medina to be hassled and harassed by sukes or store traders. I was on a mission to purchase a tagine and spices, but I knew this would come at a steep price. Not just monetarily, but for my patience. The Medina was more or less an enclosed space with thatch roofs where motorcycles could drive through trapping more exhaust inside. By the time we wandered around for an hour, we didn’t care how much things cost, we just wanted out.

We found a tagine, bowl, tea cups (for our newly ingrained mint tea habit) and some spices all for about £20. We were pretty happy with that considering we knew we were taken for a few things. When we picked our tagine, the guy said at first 3000 dirham. We looked at him like, come on, bro. He brought it down to 120 DH (about £8), but then we saw the same one at another stand later for 40 DH.

For the teacups, we had to haggle the man down from 100 DH to 50 DH because we literally only had 50 DH left. “I’ll break my best price for 75 DH.” That was all well and good, but we’re not taking more money out, and we can walk away. He eventually let four tea cups go for the 50 DH. What a pain to deal with.

We had some very eye-opening experiences being in a 99% Arab country and witnessing a whole new host of traditions and lifestyles. I appreciate that we went and wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Well, I would have traded the exhaust and the haggling. But I was never disrespected, groped, or sexually harassed. Only once, a man said I looked like Shakira. I laughed and thought he must not have seen a recent picture of her.

Morocco was a completely different world. People in the villages would just sit on the side of the road for what looked like hours, attire changed from village to village, and just their way of life is so much harder than what I have ever witnessed with my eyes. I respect their religion and the comfort the expensive mosques give them, and am eternally grateful for what life has given me.

Until next time we’re in Africa, here’s looking at you, kid.

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