Saturday night, 7:30, Fes bus station
Karim carefully checks his hair and smoothes his moustache before casually making his way over toward the two marks just inside the entrance. His mind pieces together the clues quickly. Slightly confused, but they’ve been here before at least once, probably already have tickets. Trying to look sure of themselves, braced for the hard sell, try to make friends first.
“Bonjour, mon ami. Parlez-vous francais? Non? Anglais? Hello, hello, I am Karim. Where you from? Canada? Quebec? Non? Where you go? Rissani? Yes, this way, this way.
(He follows them to the CTM window)
Let me help you with your bags. No trouble, no trouble. You go Merzouga, yes? You need hotel? You do desert trek? Here, over here, take these chairs, is no problem. I have friend in Merzouga, nice hotel, beautiful. Mohammed, he’ll pick you up in Rissani. I’ll call and he’ll be waiting. No, really, no trouble. Hey, no problem, I just try to help.
(I’m close, very close, what could close the deal? Hmmm. I think it’s time to use the “I nailed a white broad” card. They can’t help but stay at my hotel once they know that)
“My girlfriend is from Canada. Here, look at my pictures”.
We slept nearly the entire 10 hour overnight journey to Rissani, waking up at sunrise in a vast landscape of red desert. Kind of a shock, really, but it wasn’t long before even that took a backseat as the desert dropped away into a bright green oasis full of palm trees, clay houses and a small river. Definitely new territory now.
Not long after we rolled in to Merzouga on their recently paved road (before there was only a track through the desert called a piste). We arrived during a bit of a sandstorm and as we left the pavement we couldn’t see more than 20 ft in any direction, and our “hotel” (4 mud-brick walls with a few rooms inside) appeared out of nowhere like a mirage. After agreeing with our driver/hotelier, Zaouie, that we were, indeed, interested in a desert trek he summoned Omar, a tall rough-looking guy in a djellaba and headgear who fit the Berber desert guide look to a tee.
After some poor haggling on our part (the kind where we eventually accept their first offer) the details were arranged and we settled in to spend the day relaxing until 5 pm when it would be cool enough to head out. When we did go it was actually with Hassan, a camel-handler (it’s not what you think), since Omar, now back in jeans and an ill-fitting cap, turned out to be just one of the crew, no more than a nice guy with very unfortunate teeth.
Moving on, we spent the next 2 1/2 hours swaying and bouncing through the dunes on the back of our camels (Laynni, predictably, named her Cammie; I left mine nameless, preferring to avoid labels). Unbelievable dunes as far as the eye could see, and roughly as far as my ass could handle. I was a level of ass abuse I had truly hoped never to experience……again. On arrival at the oasis we dismounted and hobbled off like drunken John Waynes.
Since it wasn’t quite dark yet we set off to climb the gigantic sand dune overlooking the oasis to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, though, about halfway up I got some sand in my shoe and we had to stop.
Meanwhile, Hassan was setting up a table and lounging area outside our tent as well as getting supper ready with the help of some old guy in Blue Blockers whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Apparently he doesn’t really speak Arabic, Berber or French, but more of his own dialect. It also turns out that he actually lives at the oasis in a tiny patchwork hut. It’s a touching story about a man and his burro…..
After a while Hassan brought some bread and tajine (similar to stew) along with yet more tea slash sugar (called “Berber Whiskey” with a hearty chuckle by pretty much everyone we met), set the one big plate on the table and basically said dig in. No plates, cutlery, rags, etc. OK, no problem, personal hygiene has never been my strong suit anyway. However, do you have any idea how difficult it is to take the meat off a steaming hot chicken leg, in the middle of the stew, with just your fingers and a piece of bread? Let’s just say it’s your loss that there exists no video clip of my attempt.
Not too long after that we cozied up inside our Berber tent, a kind of pieced-together outfit of blankets and canvas. It looked pretty well covered…. 1 am, we wake up to howling winds and I find I have difficulty lifting my head, as it turns out, mostly due to the 30 lbs of sand weighing it down. A flick of the flashlight soon reveals that the whole place now resembles a very lifelike sand sculpture. I also had some hearing issues that appeared to be caused by the “hourglass effect” meaning, in basic terms, sand pouring from the roof into my ear. The roof above Laynni was flawed as well, but she described it as “The Salt Shaker”, whereby each gust of wind tossed a new batch of sand at her head. The whole experience led me to realize that all those spotless walk-in desert tents we see in the movies are, of course, owned by Sheiks, Sultans, or maybe Union Leaders, but never the common Joe.
The following morning Laynni’s trip back was made less comfortable by her inability to find an opportunity to relieve herself before we left. That job is au naturale in the desert and with the other trekkers perched on the dunes high above still enjoying the morning she was unable to find, shall we say, comfort in solitude.
Finally, our desert experience was at an end. We promptly crossed “Desert Camel Trek” off our Things to Do list and moved on. Camionette, grand taxi, bus, grand taxi later we arrived in Todra Gorge. This steeply-walled canyon climbed slowly upward into the Atlas mountains with dozens of palmeraies and kasbahs lining the small river in the centre. We did a couple pretty cool hikes in the valley and stopped in at the Todra Bar in Tinerghir, the town at the base of the gorge. This was the first bar we’d seen in Morocco and according to Steve, a British guy staying there, Laynni could very well have been the first woman through it’s doors. Breaking down the gender barrier she boldly entered man’s domain and ordered………..a mini-Coke.
Well, my editor has politely informed me that I’ve written enough (What? SEVEN pages?) so I guess we’re off. Next stop Ourzazate, then Marrakesh.
We’ll be in touch.
p.s. Abdullah’s Joke of the Day
(Warning: Some humour may be lost in translation)
What is the difference between a woman and a camel?
The ankle of the chicken that crossed the road.