Hand me a pack of dromedaries

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

As soon as we booked our flight from Casablanca to Cairo we felt as though a weight had been lifted. Although the schedule dictated that we would be forced to remain in Morocco for another week, the fact that we knew we would soon be experiencing something new breathed fresh life into our travel sails. Our ambition was to use the extra week to make our way to the mighty Sahara where we hoped to take a camel ride and (Morocco willing) spend the night on the cool desert sand.

Having slowly but surely learned our lesson, our first step was to hit the internet and formulate a plan. We did some research on possible jumping off points and even exchanged a few emails with some camel trek vendors on the other side of the country. In the end however, we decided that Marrakech would likely prove a better point of departure because we remembered seeing several set tours advertised in town that included dromedary adventures. So by the middle of the day we were on the train once again and quickly remembering the chorus to 'the Marrakech Express.'

The next day we again got lucky. Almost by chance we stumbled across an internet site that advertised a very affordable packaged Sahara tour with camels and Berber tents that departed from Marrakech. We made our way over to the Hotel Ali, the home base of the tour operator, and inquired within. To our great delight they offered everything we were looking for at a price that even we were willing to pay. We paid the required fee and showed up the next morning ready to head to the desert.

Predictably the small tour we had been promised had miraculously exploded into a 20 person gathering. One medium sized bus slowly gave way to two smaller busses and the more savvy travelers in the group jockeyed for position in the group that they believed had the largest number of relatively un-offensive people. Naturally, we gravitated toward the stodgier of the two mini-busses and were pleased when the older and saner looking driver also included himself among our ranks. Later in the trip we thanked our lucky stars for our choices that morning as we watched in horror as the less sane diver got out of his moving vehicle and climbed onto the hood as his moronic patrons cheered from inside.

But for now, the program was to traverse the broad valley in which Marrakech sits, covered with palm groves and olive trees, and to climb into the snowcapped Atlas Mountains stationed picturesquely behind the city. While we were grateful for being awarded the saner of the two drivers, we quickly discovered that wasn't saying much; we had horror flashbacks to Bolivia as this new driver careened around mountain curves that glistened with moisture. Nevertheless, we summitted in one piece and then descended again in one piece, rolling into one of the more famous and well-preserved kasbahs in all of Morocco just shy of eleven in the morning. Kasbahs, as we discovered, are nothing more than mud cities that double as forts, much like a midieval European castle complex that had peasants living inside. While we concede that Ait Benhadou Kasbah seems to have withstood the test of time better than its contemporaries that we saw crumbling by the side of the road, and it certainly deserves acclaim for continuing to stand, even though it was constructed from mud, hay and dung several centuries ago, we do have to question whether the term "best preserved" is appropriate. Instead, "best renovated" might be more fitting, as it has had quite a bit of money poured into it by Hollywood; apparently it has appeared in more than twenty films, notably Laurence of Arabia and, more recently, The Gladiator. Needless to say, the kasbah is now under UNESCO protection.

Ait Benhadou is strategically placed on the banks of a small river and on the top of a modest hill overlooking the plain below. We crossed the small river, perhaps a little more swollen due to the light rain we were walking through, courtesy of several sandbags placed across it like stepping stones, and then we climbed up the hill to the entrance of the kasbah. Inside, the small alleys contained both ancient patterns decorating the sentinel's towers and modern shops selling soda, handicrafts, and postcards. After wandering the maze of streets, we headed to a watchtower, built on the crest of the hill, and gazed out on the palm-laced, sheep-covered valley. It looked just like one might imagine - just like in a movie!

Next up was a lunch stop in Ourzazate, a hub for moving tourists and home to the Studios of Cinema, but notable for little else. After a lunch of couscous, we decided not to look around Ourzazate due to the constant drizzle and instead hopped back in the bus. We headed for the Dades Valley, which threads a course between the mountains of the High Atlas to the north and the rugged Jbel Saghro range to the south. The Dades is home to the largest oasis in eastern Morocco and is lined, up and down, with kasbahs, giving the valley the name Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. And, indeed, we did see many kasbahs out of the fogged windows of the bus, but we didn't stop to see them up close, as much for keeping a schedule as for keeping dry.

Late in the day, we zoomed by an intriguing rock outcropping, and we shouted to the driver to pull over to the side of the road. The site that we found ourselves marveling at was a cross between the thin red rock structures found at the Garden of the Gods, Colorado and the round bulbous rocks found in Veedavoo, Wyoming. Unfortunately our driver was not able to explain the geologic phenomenon that produced this magnificent oddity, but even our rather un-scientific view was that we were marveling at what must have been some sort of volcanic formation. Our guess was that the strange outcropping of rock stretched along the floor of the canyon for over a mile and reached a height of nearly 400 feet. Despite the cold blustery weather we stood in awe for several minutes and resolved to learn more about what we were looking at.

After our short photo session with the rocks, we were again back in the mini-bus and heading ever closer to the desert. But the night was quickly closing in, and the driver directed the bus to the Dades Gorge, where we were to spend the night in one of the coldest hotels on the face of the planet. The hotel was situated in a narrow valley, right by a rushing stream, seemingly with the hope of minimizing the amount of sunlight and warm air. The hotel administration succeeded admirably in achieving this goal. We could see our breath in our room, and the only sources of heat were a fireplace in the common room and random propane tanks interspersed throughout the hotel. The fireplace, which appeared to lack a flue, quickly inundated the common room with smoke. We couldn't decide whether it was better to freeze in our room or suffer asphyxiation in the common room until the smoke spread upward to our room, at which point we chose the common area. The propane tanks, which were outfitted with strange apparati that emitted warmth, weren't as noxious at first sniff, and we quickly absconded with one for our own personal use in the room. But after an hour of the propane burning away in a closed room, we didn't notice a substantial improvement in temperature but did wonder whether the slight headache we both felt was a result of its operation. So the propane tank was hauled back out into the hall, and we climbed into bed fully clothed, hats and hoods and jackets and all. Thankfully, unlike our first night in Torres del Paine, we did get a full night's rest. But never let anyone tell you that Morocco doesn't get cold...

The next morning we awoke rather too early for vacation and were trundling along, again at full speed, by seven forty-five. With more driving came more rain, but we reasoned it couldn't possibly be raining in the desert. Around ten, we made a quick stopover in a largish town, but, because of the rain, we couldn't stroll in a nearby palm grove, as our itinerary would have dictated. Alternatively, we were taken into a "traditional Berber house," this one replete with several levels, indoor wiring and what appeared to be an electric meter on the outside of the structure. A Berber man and his wife greeted us, poured hot tea for us, and then recited a lengthy but prepared spiel about how they made Berber carpets and the meanings of certain symbols weaved into the carpets. We dutifully asked questions (Steve wanted to know what percentage of carpets in Marrakech were Moroccan-made; the man replied that fully fifty percent of them were imported from China, which convinced Steve, ever skeptical, that the percentage in actuality was quite a bit higher), and, after some awkward silences in response to the man's promise that he would give us good prices on his carpets, we were finally dismissed and filed out, ready to be released from the "wait and stare" selling technique. We later brainstormed ways of repelling such advances, our favorites being: 1.) ask how to differentiate fakes from authentics, inquire as to whether they sell any fakes, and then declare a preference for the fake variety; and 2.) announce a desire not to pay anything less than a fair price that would fully compensate the workman for his craft, inquire what that price is, and then announce the price is simply too high for your budget. Demur when the salesman offers to go lower, insisting that you can't, in good conscience, pay less than a fair price to the workman; and finally, one that we did not make up ourselves, but instead read in a book 3.) just matter of factly state "no thank you, I am a Christian" - an author we came across reportedly used this technique to successfully deflect offers to buy everything from hashish to macramé. Of course, the one that we have used on several occasions is less a response than a bluff: instead of engaging the vendor and giving a reason for not being interested in their product or offer, we simply pretend that we do not speak whatever language they throw at us by quizzically asking "Krakosia?" That one works fairly well, but the credit should go to Tom Hanks in the movie Terminal - thanks Tom.

By noon, we reached yet another gorge - the more famous Todra Gorge - and ordered lunch before setting out for a half an hour stroll through the gorge in the rain. The Todra is a massive fault in the plateau dividing the High Atlas from the Jbel Saghro, and, at its narrowest, the gorge rises to three hundred meters high. It sits at the end of a valley thick with stunning palm groves and berber villages, and we hear the gorge is also a welcome relief from the heat in the summer; a crystal-clear river runs through it in which one can stand knee deep to cool off. But the thought of putting our feet in the freezing stream didn't appeal while standing in driving rain, so we retired instead to lunch - greasy, salty French fries with coffee and mint tea. It is probably fair to say we were a bit tired of tajine.

Again we piled into the truck and set out for our final push to the Sahara. We amused ourselves during the drive by laughing - quietly - at two Japanese guys in our group who had initially showed up wearing traditional jellabas, which was absurd enough. Somewhere along the way, they also picked up matching scarves and fashioned them into turbans, berber style, which provoked some private ridicule, as well (although, in their defense, from the back one couldn't discern their nationality and the outfit could have been deemed authentic). Finally, though, they got cold from the rain and the wind, and, refusing to remove their jellabas, they simply piled their winter coats over the flowing gowns - the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, particularly because their hoods were adorned with a furry trim, and the back of their coats were emblazoned with puffy appliqués of bucking horses. The ensemble, taken together, was one of the funnier conglomerations of fashion we've laid eyes on this trip.

The paved road finally petered out and we were left to drive on hard packed dirt, petrified rocks and fossils, at which point the driver of the other vehicle performed his "watch me get out of the car and sit on its hood while it is still moving" trick. We weren't amused, but we weren't affected, either, although we can promise you Steve kept a close watch on our own driver - he wasn't prepared to tolerate such shenanigans.

Another thirty minutes more and we approached a sprawling, faux-looking kasbah and, in the background, the very real-looking Erg Chebbi - a massive stretch of Saharan dunes, some of which reach more than 50 meters high. We were told to pack only small bags of essentials and then herded to the back of the kasbah where sixteen camels - two caravans of eight each - were strung together, patiently waiting, and kneeled at the ready for "easy" mounting. We were all assigned a camel - each of which had been outfitted with a saddle - and, one by one, each stood up, a process that was liable to buck the passenger if he or she wasn't gripping the saddle tightly (the camel straightens his front legs first, pitching the passenger backward, then unfolds his back legs, hurling the passenger forward). No one was pitched off, however, and no one was spat upon, a surprise to us since we had been told that camels are generally very cantankerous. And so off we traveled into the sunset on our ships of the desert, over and around the magnificent orange and ochre and golden dunes, textured and nuanced with the cloudy light playing upon their surfaces. Up close, the sand appeared to be a living thing - velvety one minute, hard and metallic the next, variegated and grooved another. And, looking up, we could see the caravan of camels in front of us, and we ruminated about what the place would have looked like when the route was really used to transport gold and spices and slaves from Timbuktu to Marrakech, fifty two days across the desert, some caravans containing up to 20,000 camels. (Steve, perched high on his camel and having bonded with the camel behind him, calculated that 20,000 camels could very well equal 40 camel miles).

Not only did the topography of the place captivate us, but the camels themselves amazed us: they are so well adapted and well equipped for what they are asked to do. Their large eyes are covered by long eyelashes, a thick eyebrow, and three sets of eyelids for each eye - each eyelid moving a different way to protect the eye from blowing sand and dust. Further, their cloven hooves are shaped like large paddles to prevent them from sinking into the sand - much like a snowshoe for dromedaries - and, of course, they store enormous quantities of water in their humps, allowing them to go for fifteen days in the desert without drinking.

We spent an hour and a half on the camels, battling the growing dusk, before we arrived at our Berber camp, where would spend the night. The camp had seen plenty of tourists before us, and will certainly see plenty after us, but we liked the notion of staying in a tent out on the dunes, regardless of the tourist factor. Berber tents - at least the ones we stayed in - are structures with a wood skeleton and rugs pinned together to form a ceiling, a floor and walls. Waiting for dinner, we sat on the carpeted floor in a large communal tent, chatting with fellow tourists and our guides, and experimenting with a set of drums. Our efforts there were unavailing. Meanwhile, an attention deprived and ADD-inflicted cat of the camp bounced from one lap to another, meowing forcefully with demands to be petted.

Dinner arrived, and we were instructed to gather together in groups of four to eat Berber-style - with our hands. A large tajine of meat, carrots, onions, zucchini and potatoes was set before us, along with pieces of flat bread, with which we were instructed to sop up the tajine's juices and grab hunks of meat and veg. While the tajine wasn't the best we'd ever tasted, we were nonetheless amused by the method of eating and basically cleaned the plate. Later we had tasty tangerines and sweetened tea for dessert.

We also were given an impromptu performance on the drums by one of our guides, Hassan, a black Berber who hailed from Mali. His dexterity with the instrument and the range of sounds he could make it emit was really quite impressive, but he interrupted the concert and insisted we ask questions about the Berber people, so we obliged. Hassan explained that Berbers were the first inhabitants of Morocco before hoards of Arab invaders swept in to rule the country. Currently, he said, Morocco is fifty percent Berber and fifty percent Arabic, but he cautioned that Berbers, in general, were a disappearing population, with dwindling numbers only in West and North Africa. And he claimed that the nomadic existence of living in tents and caves traditionally enjoyed by Berbers was also falling away, as Berbers realized that wealth in Morocco lies in owning either camels or hostels - and that hostels are appearing to be a better bet. Frankly, though, his speech left us confused, as it conflicted with much we had already heard about this enigmatic people. Indeed, one of the enduring mysteries for us coming away from Morocco will certainly be: what IS a Berber? As far as we can tell, there is no shared race or ethnicity between Berbers (some very fair and some extremely dark), nor is there consensus surrounding where, in fact, one can find them. In different circles and with different tellings, Berbers can be the victims or perpetrators of prejudice, bias, and favoritism. About the only thing we can point to as a common feature knitting the Berbers together is a shared tongue, which hardly seems to be a sufficient basis to classify such divergent people within one group (unless you are French, perhaps).

We retired to our sleeping tent and prepared for another very cold night, although we did find it ironic that the tent was demonstrably warmer than our hotel room the prior night. And, after piling several blankets on top of us - blankets we had used that day as camel saddles - we eventually drifted off to sleep, warm, surrounded by the scent of dromedary. We were rudely awakened in the middle of the night, however, by the persistent meow of the resident feline, who had taken it upon herself to run over the sleeping bodies of tourists, either in an effort to rouse us from our slumbers, or perhaps just in order to find a suitable place to make her own bed. In either case, the cat continued to run across the six of us - laid out like piano keys - for the remainder of the night, vocalizing the entire time. Not exactly how we envisioned a night in a Berber tent.

The next morning - Steve's birthday - we were slated to climb a nearby dune to watch the sunrise, but just as we began our ascent Hassan called us all back and instructed us to mount up toute suite because the rain was coming. And indeed it did: ten minutes into our return trek it started to sprinkle, and twenty minutes in, it was a proper rain. The rain carried on for another twenty minutes or so - just long enough for us to complete the circuit back to the kasbah and grab breakfast, at which time the clouds dissipated and the sun broke through. We spent the rest of breakfast watching the sun play off the dunes in the distance, sipping tea, and contemplating the harrowing drive back over the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakech.

When we eventually made it back to Marrakech late that evening we took a moment to reflect on our trip into the desert. As you have no doubt gathered, we very much enjoyed the camel trek and despite the weather we also appreciate the drive up and over the Atlas Mountains. All things considered, we felt that our additional time in Morocco turned out for the best. Our experience in and around the Sahara, however, did get us thinking about the impacts, benefits and drawbacks of tourism in the third world. Clearly, from a purely economic point of view, those who are able to take part in this ever more lucrative economic activity are measurably and significantly more wealthy. The impacts on the wider society, especially in areas where the tourism business seems to have become the only game in town, are more subtle, but clearly less favorable. Imagine a world in which the only way to make money is to produce goods for or provide service to a class of people who, by all outward appearances, neither understand, appreciate, or in many cases even notice your existence. Often we have felt that the people we interact with in these places have adopted a service-oriented mentality that threatens to supplant their own sense of self worth. When financial incentives are considered these extreme displays are predictable if not somewhat understandable, but the harder nut to crack is when there are no apparent economic motives underpinning these subservient behaviors. We wonder if at times a tourism only micro-economy compels locals to sacrifice their own sense of self worth and identity. Irrespective of the measurable monetary benefits, this type of outcome is rarely worth the price. Please forgive this minor digression; it is almost certainly the result of too much time in the back of the van and not enough experience or insight into life in a third world economy. With any luck we can refine these and other related thoughts in the weeks and months ahead.
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