Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Shadows paintin' our faces
Traces of romance in our heads!
Heaven's holdin' a half-moon
Shinin' just for us
Let's slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust!
The ENTIRE point of my counter-clockwise trip around Morocco was to spend the night in the Sahara, 450 miles and on the far side of a mountain range from Marrakech. The Sahara in Morocco (Erg Chebbi) is really just a tiny offshoot of the "real" Sahara. Because I am a map nerd, I could see that it doesn't flow directly into the same Sahara of Libya, Sudan and Algeria as I had previously thought. Since going to Libya for vacation is completely out of the question (unless they had a half marathon), this would have to do!
It was still Eid Al Adha week and buses weren't running to Merzouga, the Sahara border town that I chose. I hired a driver, Aziz, who reminded me of a friendly mobster and looked just like a fat Moroccan Nicolas Cage. We made many stops so that he could say hello to his friends. I didn't mind, we had all day and I found it kind of entertaining. Moroccan men are really touchy-feely with each other. Aziz spoke no english so I was happy that I got use out of my arabic translation book. I pointed to the words "toilet" and "water" so that I could stop in a town on the way.
When you say "hire a driver", in Morocco, that isn't a Lincoln Town car. To my horror, it means a beat up taxi with NO SEATBELT. There was a bar to hold on to between the backseat and driver. When I asked about the seatbelt and searched for it, Aziz pointed to the bar and gave me a DUH! look. I imagined all the ways I would be flying through the windshield and decided to fashion an airbag out of my giant backpack, putting it on my lap and cutting off my leg circulation. Not flying through windshield > leg amputation from lack of circulation.
We stopped for some gasoline at a pump that still had spinning numbers:
Me not flying through the windshield. I like how you can see the cheesy decals on the window and the desert landscape through it.
After 4 hours, there it was. You could see the beginnings of the Sahara far in the distance. This was a WOW moment for me. I don't have a lot of those anymore. I'm getting jaded. This literally took my breath away. There it is, the actual (close enough) Sahara!!
I checked into my hotel in the dusty little town. My hotel was really nice. The owner was away and I was the ONLY guest besides a group of 4 italian motorcyclists who liked to hang out on their balcony wearing little towels after their many showers. Every time I saw them, one of them was in a towel and somebody had taken a shower. They were very clean. Much cleaner than I.
I had a nice room with two beds. I chose the smaller bed to sleep in and spread all my stuff over the bigger bed.
I went out to explore the town. It was incredibly, incredibly dull. There was nothing to do. There were two or three shops that sold old dirty, bent, sun-faded postcards. I kept thinking I was missing the downtown. Nope! This IS the downtown!
I had a nice dinner on the patio and ate while the staff stared at me. The owner's assistant, Mustafa, stared at me like a deer in the headlights every time he saw me. I could not figure out what was so fascinating about me. Have you ever seen a dirty American backpacker before, jackass? After dinner I did a little google search "staring men morocco" and learned that I am not fascinating after all, staring is just totally OK for them. They ask a lot of personal questions and stare. I tried to tell myself this was just a cultural thing (besides the obvious "unmarried woman traveling by herself" thing that provoked shock or pity and often both from nearly every Moroccan I talked to.) The French hotel owners in Marrakech got a lot of solo travelers and thought it was wonderful that I was in Morocco by myself and were impressed by all the solo travel I had done. Again, this didn't happen in Egypt at all. I think Egypt just gets more visitors. But the staring and the questions were wearing me down a little bit every day. I was trying to be patient but I am a person who needs her space. It was a challenge, for sure.
OK, I just adore the moroccan salad that you see everywhere:
The next day, I used an internet cafe run by a 10 year old boy that had several letters on the keyboard that would get stuck. I hung out on the hotel patio and read my book while being stared at by Mustafa. At one point, he actually came over to my table while I was reading, sat down and watched me read. I was killing time before the evening/overnight camel trek and I was counting the seconds until I could be rid of Mustafa.
My camel guide was Ahmar, who was Mustafa's friend. I had the feeling I was being discussed and would be discussed at length when we returned from the overnight trip. I am fascinating!
Outside the hotel, my fly-covered camel Joey was waiting. I am not comfortable with large animals. I was never one to want a horse or pony. I hated every second of the two horse rides I have gone on in my life. I wanted to do the classic "ride a camel in the desert thing" so I sucked it up and got on. Joey was lounging on the ground, I got on the saddle, Ahmar smacked him with a stick and I shot up 6 feet in the air. The camel was actually cute. He had long eyelashes and a mild manner, so I bonded with him.
We set off over some tiny bushes that quickly became pure orange sand.
I was really expecting some other tourists on this trip with me. In fact, I had picked what seemed like the busiest hotel and asked them specifically "I won't be alone with just the camel, will I?" The assured me that it was a busy week. But it wasn't, and I was alone with my guide. I made small talk with him. He was fairly interesting - He had grown up in a nomadic family near the Algerian border. I just wished that some other tourists had been there with me. It was a little uncomfortable, like an awkward OVERNIGHT blind date. We talked a little bit about my trip. Then I made a joke - I laughed some story off by saying "that's because I am a crazy girl!"
That was a mistake. A very large mistake. He took that literally. I mean, I am crazy, we all know that - but not in the way that he probably wanted me to be. Kareem and Abdul would have gotten the joke, but Ahmar was a more serious guy. Somehow that comment opened the door for some very odd flirtation from him.
While I was busy being super uncomfortable and deflecting the very one-sided sexual tension, I was in absolute awe of how beautiful this desert was. It was completely mind-blowing.
One interesting thing about Joey and his flies - there is nowhere for flies to go when you shoo them off. They literally will not fly away, they just go to a different spot on the camel. We travelled out to the desert camp and returned the next day with the same 200 flies stuck to us.
We started talking about Americans. I asked him "are Americans ever too fat to ride the camel". Yes, they are. They have a closer camp to take them. He pointed it out to me on the way. And then he said "Not you. You have a good body"
Joey taking a break and feeling the awkwardness:
I chose to take that comment to mean "you have a good, non-camel-breaking body", and not what I thought it meant. Ah, crap. This was going to be a long night.
I watched the most beautiful sunset of my whole life with a man who had brown teeth from many years of drinking sweet mint tea and no dental care and could vouch for my solid, BMI-appropriate, non-camel-injuring body:
I was promised "romantic light" when we got to the camp. I stressed my preference for light to be very strong and unromantic. I needed very utilitarian light. I wanted the harshest, least romantic light available and made sure that Ahmar knew of my light preferences. Instead, I got romantic light made from a soda bottle candle.
The candle in the bottle was held in place by sand. I asked him "where did you get that sand?!", which was a really stupid joke, but Ahmar thought it was hilarious. He laughed for minutes. It actually made me laugh, too. Ok this was good. Now I am the "funny" girl, not the crazy, whorish girl.
He left me alone while he went to cook dinner and I read my book by flashlight.
Dinner wasn't as awkward as I thought it would be. I just asked him questions about his life. How often do you get to dine with an Algerian-border nomad who grew up in a camel hair tent? It was interesting. And his veggie tagine was really, honestly good. It was a nice dinner. There were other people about 200 yards away, and some people drumming. I enjoyed the faint drum music and the comforting presence of people within screaming distance.
Until he asked me to take a moonlight stroll with him. F*ck no. I explained very nicely that I am very much like a grandma who likes to read books and go to bed by 9:30PM. Sadly, this is the truth. But it worked out nicely. I took two sleeping pills and retired to my own camel hair tent. He seemed really disappointed in me. I didn't really care.
The next morning, I climbed a dune and watched the sun rise over the camp:
We made the two hour trip back to Merzouga, I took the best shower of my life and I left for Fez so that Mustafa and Ahmar could discuss me for the rest of the day, I'm sure.