Our three day trek into the Sahara was booked online weeks in advance. The guide told us to meet him in front of the main entrance to the train station, Gare Routière. Dana told him to look for two women: a blonde and an Asian. During one of our walks into the Medina, Dana and I spotted a building labeled Gare Routière de Voyageurs near the apartment and made a mental note of how long it would take. Soufiane was nice enough to wake up early, hail a cab, and wait with us at the station. The only problem was, he took us to this station. Note how it says Gare de Marrakech, not Gare Routière.
When you’re in an unfamiliar country and things don’t go as expected, the first instinct is to freak out a little. Dana and I argued with Soufiane that this was the wrong station because we had seen it the other day. He said that was the bus station. If the guy said train station, this is the ONLY train station in Marrakech. How could we possibly argue with a native Moroccan and resident of Marrakech? Well, we did. My logic was, Google translates “gare” as “train station” even though it is sometimes used to just mean “station” (as in for buses). Maybe something got lost in translation.
As the time of our meeting ticked by with no guide, the fear of being at the wrong gare intensified minute by minute. Soufiane told us to just chill, the guide was probably running late from the other travelers. Finally, he gave in to our anxiety and found a payphone to call the company. After a flurry of Arabic, he hung up and turned to me with an exasperated smile. “I told you they’re just running late. He was so Moroccan about it to. He was like, ‘just wait, we’ll be there.'”
As we walked back to the main entrance, we were approached by a young Moroccan man. “SarahVielgus?” He asked. Close enough. He introduced himself as Ali, our guide for the trip. Soufiane said something to Ali in Arabic then offered his cell number in case anything happened. Apparently Ali had been seen us waiting for a while but didn’t think we were the right people because he was looking for two women. Since Soufiane was waiting with us, it didn’t fit his description.
Once in the SUV, we met Hassan, our driver, and Sara and Edgar, a Portuguese couple who would be doing the tour with us. They had arrived in Marrakech the day before. After the tour, they planned a tour of Morocco’s imperial cities.
Our tour would take us 660km through the Atlas mountains, valley of roses, Dades Gorges, to Merzouga. The route is about the distance from Minneapolis to Chicago – but with a lot fewer farms. Over the course of the three day tour, not only did we witness some incredible landscapes, but we also learned a lot about Moroccan culture and fielded questions from Sara and Edgar about the US. Three days with the same strangers opens the door for some interesting conversation so I’ll start there. The sights are better told in photo form anyway.
Conversations with Ali
As we started, Ali gave us a brief history of Morocco starting with the nomadic Berbers, going through the Phoenicians, Roman, and Arab conquerors, French colonization, and into the present. Although Morocco still has a monarchy, after the Arab spring, they also installed a primer minister. According to Ali and Soufiane, Mohammad VI, the Moroccan king, is fairly progressive and well respected by his people – one of the reasons the Arab Spring didn’t have the same impact here as Tunisia or Egypt. In regards to the revolutions in the Arab world, Ali said, “we [Moroccans] prefer peace with a monarch than revolution with democracy.”
Before coming to Morocco, I admit, I should have cracked open a history book. I remembered from ap world history that the Arabs had conquered the area during multiple invasions, so I figured most of the people would consider themselves Arab. However, according to Ali (and a quick Google search) about half of Moroccans consider themselves to be Berber. Some prefer the term Amazigh which means free people. Soufiane is a halfie (Berber/Arab). Both Ali and Hassan are 100% Berber.
Because of the French colonialism, Dana and I had been speaking French for most of the trip. However, Ali said he was actually more comfortable speaking English. In southern Morocco, away from the centers of French imperialism, people don’t really speak it. In fact, Hassan didn’t speak French or English. He didn’t really speak much Arabic either, only Berber.
Thankfully, Ali pointed out, both the Berbers and Arabs are Muslim. If not, the cultures would have a harder time coexisting. That said, Ali seems to be Muslim the same way twice-a-year-Christians are “Christian.” In asking Ali questions about himself, we got to learn about Moroccan culture through his eyes.
Ali grew up in a village near Merzouga. He has 6 siblings and 25 nieces and nephews. Although the law says kids aren’t allowed to get married until they’re 18, one of Ali’s sisters got married when she was 15 and now has five kids. Her husband was 21. I can’t even fathom getting married at 22 much less starting a family. Edgar asked how that is allowed. Ali said it’s not, but as long as all the villagers know they are married, why else does it matter? In the villages, that’s just the way it is.
He described the many weddings he has attended lately. The traditional Berber wedding consists of three days of feasting, dancing, and celebration. Nobody sees the bride’s face until the last day so her attendants must feed her under the veil. The parents of the bride and groom both host portions of the celebration and often the whole village attends – granted, the whole village may only be about 20 families.
On our last day driving back, which was a Saturday, we drove through a crowd of children on bikes. We asked Ali if they had school. As far as I can tell, Moroccan education is not centralized and each district has a lot of agency over what they offer. Whether they teach in Berber or Arabic depends on the region, but everyone is supposed to learn both. If there is a foreign language, it will most likely be French. Ali said in his area, kids are supposed to go to school until they are 18. The school day goes from 8am-12 one day then the next day they will go from 2-6pm. The school week is Monday-Saturday, which explains all the kids in the street. Despite the Muslim holy day being Friday, they still get Sunday off. Although education is mandatory, Ali admitted that most villages ignore that law as well.
Conversations with Edgar and Sara
In Dana’s year in France, there are two topics she said commonly arose with French people: gun control and Obama. We got both.
I think Dana and I both have fairly moderate stances on gun control, but to Sara and Edgar, we probably made getting a gun in the US sound like being a guest on an Oprah show. “You get a gun, you get a gun!” Then again, the fact that you can buy guns at Walmart might give that notion a little more merit. I tried to explain the logic behind some of the main arguments for gun ownership in the US. They didn’t buy it. I’m pretty sure we’re still just a bunch of cowboys to them.
As far as Obama is concerned, I think foreigners love him more than most Americans. With the economic crisis in Europe hitting Portugal more than some other EU countries, Sara and Edgar both seem disillusioned by their government. Obama’s narrative of being from the people and falling into politics makes him an inspirational figure by contrast for Sara. Their view of American politics makes it seem a lot more functional than it is.
Two other topics that we spent a long time discussing were atheism and 9.11 conspiracies. Although much of Europe has strong histories in Catholicism, many of the Europeans I’ve met are strongly atheist. I don’t mean “I don’t know if there is a God, but I’m pretty sure there’s not” atheist, I mean “God doesn’t exist and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid,” atheist. Sara and Edgar were no exceptions. Having a conversation about religion with them and Ali made for a wide range of opinions. Dana and I mostly sat that one out. Religion is a sensitive topic and I wasn’t going to step on any toes as we made our way into the desert. As far as 9.11, this was a topic only breached with me, Dana, Edgar, and Sara present. Although it was a polite conversation, it was also a very uncomfortable one. I won’t get into all that was said, but I never realized how controversial the events on that day were and how much that impacted the world outside the US and Middle East.
All in all, they were a fun couple with whom to share the road. Even though Edgar repeatedly told us how bad his English was, that didn’t stop him from a good debate.
Taking pictures on a smartphone of Morocco’s majestic landscapes cannot do them justice so I split my picture taking between my camera and my phone. In truth, most of my photos are on my actual camera so those will have to be uploaded later. I’ll put what I can up now and have to fill retroactively.
After our eventful morning, we left Marrakech and started through the anti-Atlas mountains. According to Ali, the name Atlas either comes from Greek mythology or a bastardization of the Berber word for mountain. Since the Greek Atlas held up the world and had nothing to do with mountains, I’ll believe the Berber origins. The road through the mountains is the Tizi n’Tichka Pass which literally means “difficult pass”. Its steep and winding roads would make anyone with a weak stomach lose their breakfast.
Along the way, Ali stopped the car for various photo opportunities.
Ali gave me an Arabic lesson in the car.
Aït Benhaddou is a former rest stop on the camel path known as the route of a thousand kaspahs. Kaspahs are a type of building made with clay and straw. Although the buildings are continually damaged by weather, they are remarkably good at displacing heat. The hill of kaspahs has served as the backdrop for many Hollywood movies including Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Mummy. It is also occasionally used by the current TV series Game of Thrones.
Unlike most European cities where the highest structure is a church, here, it was a treasury. Perhaps this says something about Islam’s history in trade.
Ouarzazate is the Hollywood of Morocco and home to numerous film studios. The most notable is Atlas studios which did Kingdom of Heaven.
The Dades valley is known for its geological forms that supposedly look like monkey fingers.
Skoura’s fertile oasis allowed for a growth of palms. Who knew the dessert could be so green?
At night we stayed in the dades gorge and enjoyed a chicken tajine at the hotel.
Although Dana and I were prepared to be completely cut off from the internet, we were relieved to have WiFi at the hotel. There are two other things we were surprised to find in even the tiniest villages deep in the desert: satellite TV and coca cola.
The Todra gorge supposedly contains massive amounts of water beneath the rocks. It was a lot cooler in the gorge than other spots on our trip. The area is also known for its many palm trees.
On our second day, we finally made it to Erg Chebbi. After 1.5 hours on a camel, we arrived at our camp site just in time for sunset. Ali left us with a young Berber man named Yousef to guide us into the desert. As we rode camels into the dunes, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky am to be able to have such a spectacular experience. That said, I never want to ride a camel ever again. They’re really uncomfortable and Sara’s camel kept nipping at my calf.
That night, Yousef made us a tajine dinner. After the sun set, we were able to stargaze. Even though it was not a completely clear night, it was still a better view than I could ever get in Minneapolis. Yousef and another guide, Mohammed, pulled out drums and started playing. They even taught me to play with them. The next morning we packed up and rode our camels back to Merzouga as the sun rose.
Our last day was pretty much a straight shot back to Marrakech. Going back through my pictures, I still can’t believe I did that. How many people get to say their first time camping was in the Sahara?
After returning to Marrakesh, Dana and I still had two more nights before we would go or separate ways. See Dana’s take on our desert excursion on her blog.