Arabian Nights

Trip Start Oct 24, 2010
1
4
50
Trip End May 10, 2011


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Where I stayed
Berber Tent (Sahara Desert)

Flag of Morocco  , Souss-Massa-Drâa,
Thursday, November 25, 2010

After a few days in Marrakech we decided to embark on a bit of an adventure and head east across the Atlas mountains and into the great Sahara desert. In the typical Moroccan way, the morning started with its special combination of chaos, lateness and a sweating array of mustachioed men yelling and gesturing wildly with their hands. Eventually we set off in a mini bus with a brooding driver and an international mix of people. There was a lovely French speaking couple from the island of Guadeloupe (named Olivier and Gladys, pronounced in a charming French accent like Glad-eeeese); two 20-something gals from Halifax (I recognized their Canadian-ness instantly by the LuluLemon pants they wore); a Spanish speaking pair of friends: one woman from Mexico and the other Argentina; and a single guy from South Africa with a hearty laugh named Paul. We all said our hellos and exchanged pleasantries in a mix of languages and accents and settled in for the 7 hour drive to Zagora.

Our driver quickly displayed the common Moroccan driving style known as total and complete lunacy (well, at least that's what I call it). I would like to take a minute now to describe for you what Stefano and I have come to call the Moroccan Driving Conundrum (although I know this
phenomenon is not limited solely to Morocco, we have witnessed it in Egypt,Vietnam...even Italy!). SO, Why is it that virtually all tasks (except for daily prayers) operate on 'Moroccan Time' - a schedule, or lack thereof, characterized by loose deadlines, lackadaisical almost lethargic pace, and general disinterest in any task of seemingly urgent nature. HOWEVER, as soon as a Moroccan gets onto or into anything with at least 2 wheels and a motor - suddenly speed and time are of the essence! Vite, vite vite!!! Meep meep meeep!! All of a sudden everyone seems to be in SUCH a rush to get somewhere. The journey must be accompanied by an incessant dialogue of horn honking, irresponsible and incomprehensible passing, and flashing and flicking of lights at an ever increasing speed. Perhaps passing another vehicle is an ego thing? I call it a stupidity thing. Wrapped up in this conundrum is an even more complex cultural mentality - let's call it the 'Inshallah Mentatility'.

As mentioned before, Inshallah translates to 'Allah Willing'. Inshallah is a phrase uttered at the end of almost every statement here, similar to "what will be will be" - but used more frequently and with more passion. When applied to driving, the Moroccans we met would use the Inshallah Mentality to argue: "I will survive this sharp turn as I pass this truck in the dark, IF Allah wants me to survive." I mean no disrespect, but I personally believe that actions have consequences. I believe I have been given free will, general common sense, an education and a strong desire to survive, and therefore I do not share or condone the Inshallah Mentality as a driver (or passenger!). 

But I digress...As we left the city limits of Marrakech, the Atlas mountains soon began to rise up on the dry horizon in front of us. Our little white mini bus zipped along, hugging the harrowing mountain switchbacks. The road seemed to be merely a thin spool of cracking asphalt unraveling and winding precariously along rocky mountain face. I closed my eyes for almost half the journey - too car sick and scared to look at the craggy faces of the Atlas mountains below. We stopped at a roadside hut selling fossils, scarves, drinks and snacks. A sweet mint tea helped calm the nerves and motion sickness before we filed back into the bus and sped eastward again. As the roads improved and I pried open my eyes, the beauty of the mountains was breathtaking. Stefano and I tried to take pictures of the impressive landscape from the car window, but the photos do no justice. The undulating slopes look almost as though they were extruded from a topographic map - each individual elevation line defined in dark brown, red and ochre stone.

We stopped at a movie studio where many desert movie scenes are filmed. The studio gates and chipped stucco Pharaohs seemed strangely out of place in the sun scorched landscape. We ate lunch at the gate of a Kasbah in Ouarzazate. This sight of the kasbah elicited group singing and dancing on the sidewalk, as we all "rocked the kasbah" like happy, obliging tourists. Then onward we drove, the mighty Atlas seeming to erode away beneath our swerving wheels. Soon the mountains were flattening, softening and a new landscape was upon on.

We stopped in Zagora to stock up on bottles water and Berber scarves to protect our faces from sun and sand before boarding our new (and thankfully slower!) means of transportation - the camel! A group of Berber men swathed in long robes and impressive head coverings welcomed us with genuine smiles, flashing their decaying teeth (if they had teeth). One of the Berbers waved us over to a circle of seated camels, or dromedaires as they were called. The camels grunted and chewed their cud with teeth worse than their keepers. These camels were of the 'one hump' variety and required a saddle made from a metal frame and a stack of Berber blankets in order to be ridden. We were each introduced to our respective camels (mine named Mahmoude, Stefano's was named Salome) and quickly hoisted up on to the massive creatures. They gurgled and uttered Chewbacca-esque groans before rising up on their spindly and calloused legs. My trusty Mahmoude was at the front of the pack, followed by Salome, Mr. Udd (the distant Berber cousin of Mr. Ed perhaps?), Bobo, Mnash, Myrtle and others all connected by a long rope.

The Berber guides led us into the desert as the sun-flared sky faded from blue to yellow to pink, the silhouettes of palm trees disappearing behind us as we moved towards the Sahara on our noble beasts! At one point Stefano suffered what the Berber guide called a 'flat tire' - meaning his saddle has shifted and flattened. Stef had to dismount his camel while the guides re-fluffed and rearranged his seat. Then we were moving again. Mahmoude had a slumping gait and dipped to the right every few steps. This left me hanging tight to the metal saddle frame for fear of falling the several feet to the hard ground (camels are much bigger than I realized - that's a long way to fall!). Eventually Mahmoude and I fell into a nice rhythm and we strode along proudly leading the others. I must attest, riding that mechanical bull at Dana's stampede-themed  bachelorette party proved to be good training!

The romance of riding a camel into the desert sunset quickly faded for Stefano and the other men, as their anatomy met with certain challenges aboard the dromedaires. In an act of desperation, Stefano removed his headscarf and rolled it into a contraption he eloquently called his 'Nut Guard' - the other men quickly followed suit, sitting on their folded scarves. Eventually Paul even resorted to riding side saddle for fear of permanent damage.

The sunset faded to a thick velvety black sky as we rode along. I spoke in French with the Berber guide and we watched as thousands of tiny pin pricks left the dark sky glowing with starlight. Neither Stefano or I have ever seen a sky so clear and bright as that night. Miles from any source of light pollution, the stars seemed amplified and truly spectacular, upstaged only by the moon glowing full and white later that night. The guide, who insisted we call him Alejandro (clearly not his real name), asked if I learned to speak French in Paris. I said "Non, au lycee." He sighed and paused, then said wistfully in English "School...I wish to have school also. But is not possible here. But I learn many languages from the visitors. I speak maybe 10 languages now, so is good." I asked him to teach me some Berber words and he happily obliged. The rich sounds of the language rolled in his throat and sounded foreign and exotic to my ear. I liked the way he pronounced the word Berber - a throaty warble like "Bearh-bearhhh". As we rode on he jokingly assigned us each a Berber name. I was Nujma (meaning star), Stefano was Ali Baba (hah!).

After a couple hours, the gait of our camels slowed and softened and we could tell that we had hit the sand dunes. We trod along a little way further before seeing a fire in the distance. Soon we arrived at the Berber camp. There was a large fire in the center of an open area, ringed by an assortment of dark tents. We disembarked our camels and waddled with sore legs over to our tents. The mess tent was lined with elaborately patterned blankets, carpets and pillows and we were ushered in for supper.

We all gathered together around a table and Alejandro  ceremoniously poured piping hot cups of mint tea. We sat and talked in our broken languages, translating for each other when we could. Dinner started with traditional harira soup - a hearty mix of lentils, tomatoes and spices eaten with a funny shaped wooden spoon. The Berbers then produced a huge clay tajine, opening the conical lid to reveal steaming and tender chicken with tumeric, potatoes, peas, carrots and other mysterious spices. It was flavorful and delicious and we gobbled it down with our fingers and torn bread. Dessert was a bowl of ripe tangerines with their leafy stems intact.The tart sweetness was the perfect end to our meal.

As we ate, Alejandro told us Berber riddles in French, chiding us when no one could produce a correct response. One riddle queried: "What is the difference between a woman and a camel?" Olivier from Guadeloupe was the first to respond: "A camel has humps on its back. A woman has humps on her chest?!?" The table erupted with laughter but Alejandro shook his head. Paul offered doubtfully: "You ride a camel...but a woman rides you?!?" Again laughter, but no luck. Finally the answer was revealed: "With a camel, a man can traverse the desert. With a woman, a man traverses life." I pinched Stefano's knee and winked at him from under my blue Berber headscarf.

After dinner we all retired to straw stools set up around the fire under the open sky. The group of Berbers, varying in age from 14 to 50 or so, gathered round and produced an assortment of instruments. They drummed and sang songs in their native tongue as we listened and watched, transfixed. They seemed genuinely happy, smiling, singing and clapping. At one point we all got up and danced around the fire to their hoots and hollers. At this point, I was surprised to learn that the conga line transcends cultures and geography and is the great unifier for dance parties worldwide!

So impressed by our dancing (if you can call it that!), the Berbers decided it was our turn to entertain them, pressing their clanging castanets and drums reluctantly upon us. As a group (with no real musicians among us), the 9 of us tried to figure out if we all knew any of the same songs well enough to sing together. This proved harder than expected, and we performed a pathetic rendition of "Happy Birthday" - the only musical common denominator we could discern, followed by a weak version of "Frere Jacques". The Berbers were less than impressed and insisted we try again, trying to contain their laughter. The girls from Halifax started clapping on their knees the boom-boom-pah...boom-boom-pah rhythm of "We Will Rock You" and soon the Berbers joined in drumming out the beat as the few of us English speakers shouted out the lyrics. We then transitioned seamlessly into a screeching version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", sounding more like feral cats fighting than a melody per se. Our confidence growing, Stefano suddenly launched into his own special solo a cappella version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", replete with desert air guitar. I backed up my man with some killer desert air drums and turban-tossing head banging dance moves.

We stayed by the firelight well into the wee hours of the night. The Berbers sat with us and talked and taught us how to use their hammered metal castanets. The patina-ed metal pinched the skin of our palms but produced a clear chiming sound when used properly. We eventually made our way to bed, checking the heavy wool blankets and thin mattresses on the floor for snakes before climbing in. The desert turned bitterly cold during the night and we shivered together for warmth, knowing that the morning would again bring a dry, unrelenting heat. Our lullaby that night was the gurgling, rumbling, burping sounds of slumbering camels huddled a few feet away from our tent.

At dawn's first light, our guides woke us. Since we had ridden into the desert in the dark, we had not seen the landscape around us until those first morning moments. Stepping outside our tent, we gasped at the undulating and barren dunes around us. The sand was bathed on soft
light. It was stunning. After a breakfast of tea and stale pita with fruit preserves, we bid the sunrise and camp adieu and boarded our camels for the morning's trek. I greeted Mahmoude with a pat on the rump, remarking "My my my, looks like someone got their beauty rest!" as frothy, sticky spit dribbled down her hairy camel chin. We rode our camels through the sable dunes as the desert temperature rose with the sun in the sky. Eventually we had to say farewell to our dromedaires and kind Berber guides and board the mini bus. After several hours riding a camel (really not that comfortable after all), we welcomed the soft upholstered seats of the vehicle.

Our journey back to Marrekech took us to a few other historic sites, kasbahs, and movie sets (Prince of Persia, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, etc). I spied a stork's nest atop one of the four corners of an ancient mud-walled kasbah. The nest was spectacular - a woven mess of twigs and branches as big as a bathtub! Unfortunately we never saw the nest's inhabitants; I'm sure he was busy delivering Berber babies somewhere in the desert...
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