Pass the Sheesha

Trip Start Dec 16, 2009
Trip End Jan 09, 2010

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mary did a smart thing last night - nothing terribly ingenious, but something very simple. She took a shower. What's so smart about that? Well, because last night, the hotel still had hot water. This morning? It was frigid!  But one good thing about a cold shower in the morning is that it definitely wakes you up, in a hurry!

The funny thing is that the cold shower wasn't as big of a shock to the system as you would think - Michael later told us that the temperature in the hotel dropped down to 11 deg C last night, so because the ambient temperature was already so low, there wasn't a big differential between that and the water temperature.  But care must still be taken with wet skin in such frigid temperatures - for instance, sitting on the ice-cold toilet seat after a shower likely would have resulted in my butt freezing to it. How uncomfortable would tonight's camel ride be after that?

Breakfast was the typical Moroccan affair with bread, pancakes, butter, jam, coffee, and tea (this time English tea, not mint). We dined with the Italian couple from our van, Paolo and Marianna, from Palermo in Sicily. There wasn't much time for chit chat or even eating, as we needed to quickly pack and head out - it was going to be another long day of travel by road.

We were off to the Todra gorge, first stopping at a little farming village for a bit of a guided tour and of course, a visit to a carpet shop, disguised as mint tea with local Berbers. Paolo and Marianna had the right idea, skipping out on it altogether, later citing the fact that the guidebook mentioned some very interesting spots in the gorge, but wondering why we didn't stop at any of those places. It's probably because there aren't any carpet shops there!

The farmers here only grow food for their animals, and either trade the feed or the animals for other items. The guide asked that no pictures be taken of the Berber locals - apparently there never used to be an issue with this, but when photos of locals started appearing on the internet and in magazines, it created a great problem. Couples got divorced over this, so local women now quickly cover up when tourists with cameras in hand walk by. There have also been instances where locals forced people to delete photos from their cameras, sometimes even breaking them or getting into fist fights over it.

Funny moment - the driver has been playing lots of Arab music throughout the trip, but all of a sudden he changed radio stations, and the Black Eyed Peas came on! We all looked at each other and smirked.

Merzouga - finally, we arrived at the town from where we would take our camel trip out into the desert. Another van joined us there, so there were about 20 people in total. It took quite a while for everybody to board their camels, not because of the number of people, but because the camels assigned to Michael and myself were freaking out. Unfortunately for Michael, he hopped onto the camel before it freaked out, and got quite the ride before the guides were able to get the camel back under control so that Michael could hop off.

It must've taken about 20 minutes before the camels calmed down sufficiently enough for us to safely get under way.  The guides were quite adamant that Michael and I take these two camels; we joked that perhaps they thought we were traveling solo, so that if the camels bucked us off and we were killed, our bodies could be discreetly disposed of in the Sahara without a soul knowing of our demise.

Only one word is necessary to describe a camel ride in the desert - enlightening, incredible, stunning ... those would be good choices. But no, the perfect way to describe camel riding is - chafing!!! Ow!!! My arms and shoulders were actually quite sore after, because I had a death grip on the handlebars to stabilize myself and prevent excess chafing on any ... uh ... shall we say, sensitive areas?

About 10 minutes into the ride, I contemplated asking the guide to let me off - walking the remaining 50 minutes to camp would have been far more comfortable! It's a good thing that we didn't go with the original plan of M'Hamid, because that would have involved a three-hour camel ride each way.

We quickly settled into the main camp, where we were treated to some mint tea and some Berber music before dinner. Dinner was - you guessed it - tajine. There was very little chicken, and it was buried under a mountain of potatoes, with a few pieces of onions and tomatoes. The chickens here seem extra tasty, very tender and flavourful. Though very simple, this was perhaps our best tajine of the trip - the potatoes were so moist and tender, and all the ingredients seemed to be popping with flavour.

The tent cleared out pretty quickly after dinner, with people staking claim to tents for the night, and also using the vast Sahara for a bathroom. About 10 of us stuck around in the main tent with two of the guides, smoking sheesha, listening to regional music on the guide's cell phone, and telling "jokes" that were more like riddles. I've never been a big fan of tours like this, because authenticity is always questionable. But it was definitely a memorable experience sitting in a Berber tent, passing around stories and the hookah pipe. It was quite the journey to get out to the Sahara, but those precious few moments made the time and effort all worthwhile. 
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