It was not the golden sea of sand I pictured the Sahara to be. The sand was gray-beige with a slight tint of red, very rocky and relatively flat. Not one dune was in sight. The real endless miles of dunes start in Merzouga, Morocco, four hours away from where we were, Zagora. The small, up-and-coming desert city was probably less than an hour away from the Algerian border, but conventional roads soon disappeared beyond this city.
Driving into Zagora city was like an erie military movie. Buildings clogged the avenue right off the two-lane street, but behind the two- or three-story structures. There was the semblance of a living city, but it was so empty. It was just in the process of being built: soon-to-be houses and shops were just skeletons devoid of guts. The bricks had been laid, but where were the people? Who was this all being built for? As the gateway to the desert, the city is often visited by tourists and I bet their money is funding the new buildings and train station in progress.
A short 10 minutes later, we had driven by the whole city – spread out in its entirety along that one street. We turned left at a roundabout, and left again at the Hotel La Fibule Zagora and soon the buildings slipped out of view. Again, we were looking at the vast emptiness of gray-beige sand. We stopped and with the second breath of fresh air I took, I noticed the camels lying on the sand near the road. Let me insert a trivial fact here. We were actually going to ride dromedaries to our campsite, the proper name for the species of camel with one hump.
Everyone was excited and taking billions of photographs from every angle. I would stick out my neck to say that none of these people have ever seen a dromedary before, myself included. So naturally I joined them in taking billions of photographs from every angle of the tall, domesticated draft animals. One dromedary sitting, one in the process of getting up, my boyfriend sitting on one… Dromedaries have the most peculiar way of getting up and sitting back down. They do it one leg at a time, so the rider swings forward and backward twice as he rises in height. Our campsite was an hour and a half off the road, so as part of the tour gimmick, we would ride dromedaries there. So we rose, one leg at a time, and rode away with our new Berber guides.
I had heard that camels were not comfortable, but I didn’t want to believe the advice, thinking it couldn’t be much different from riding a horse, which isn’t terribly uncomfortable. Ten minutes into it I was convinced I never wanted to ride a camel again. They bounced the rider back and forth roughly. I couldn’t hold on to my camera to take a photo, I just clutched the horn of the saddle and prayed that I wouldn’t get thrown off. Oftentimes I considered stopping our guides to ask if I could just walk there. An hour later our ride finally ended, but it left me sore in places I didn’t want to admit.
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By the last ray of sunlight we made it to our campsite. Candlelight barely illuminated our large tents crafted of rugs, cloth tarps and a frame of metal poles. They slept at least eight people on thick-padded cots covered by heavy blankets. Our tent was on the perimeter of the site, next door was another eight-person sleeper tent and adjacent to the sleepers was the common lounge where we met to eat dinner.
Finally able to rest after a day in the bus from Marrakech, we laid down just long enough to gather the warmth that trailed behind the setting sun. Then it got cold. The extreme heat of the day is contrasted by the extreme cold of the night in the desert. Despite all our layers, we still reached for blankets trying to distract ourselves from the cold with conversation.
Food was due to come so we moved to the lounge/dining tent where the atmosphere of bustling people and their body heat made the temperature bearable, even crisply pleasant. As we waited for our guides to bring out dinner, we exchanged broken conversation with our comedic Italian friends. At our table was another couple our age, a man from Portugal and his girlfriend from Brazil. It was easy to get comfortable there on our bean or rice cushions sitting before our low table.
The meal took a while to come out, so we joined our Italian friends for some conversation outside the tent while they smoked their cigarettes for an appetizer. Really, I was out there to catch a look at the stars. As soon as the night fully set in and any last ray of sunlight was gone for good, the stars took command of the sky. I must have had my head cocked back for twenty minutes, mouth wide open gaping at the stellar landscape that’s so hard to come by in southeast Michigan. The sky seemed closer, and tons of stars appeared that I had never seen before.
I got jealous of the Berbers who gaze at this view every night. I wished I was better at navigating by the stars, but without reliable access to view the sky in its shining glory, I could only pick out popular constellations and guess where they would rotate to in the sky next. The sky was so bright with stars that it was hard to isolate the brightest stars that make up a known constellation like Orion or the Big Dipper.
Finally, the guides brought out soup. I remembered how cold I was and went inside to warm my hands on the hot ceramic bowls. Moments after we finished, large tagines arrived on the three tables in the tent. Using a tagine is the preferred way to eat anything in Morocco. It’s a large, often ceramic, pot with a tall, cone top. The food is tossed in the pot along with the spices, oils, broth, sauces, and whatever else and the whole thing is heated in an oven or on a fire. It cooks slowly, much like a Dutch oven.
It was so dark that we had to take a photo of the meal just to see what we were eating; mostly potatoes, squash, herbs, broth, tomato and a pickle and vegetable garnish. I don’t know if Berber style meals are at all different from Moroccan style, but this meal was good if barely spiced – a staple of any Moroccan meal. Moroccans are very proud of their spices, especially a mix of 45 Moroccan spices touted as the defining spice in all tagines and soups.
Feeling full and warm again, I sat back to observe what was happening in the tent. From my corner seat, I could see all the people in the tent. At every table different cultures were exchanging their travel stories and recounting how the world works in their respective countries. I overheard a young nerdy couple from Hong Kong describing their modern city to the curious older French couple. This is the mark that traveling leaves behind on you: you don’t have to travel all the way to Hong Kong to find out valuable information about the country. Don’t ask the internet to find out if Hong Kong is independent from China; just ask the native expert. The knowledge will stick with you better that way because you discuss the topic further with natives. An internet search you’re likely to forget the next day.
And then the cats came in to interrupt my musing. Morocco is infested with cats and the desert is no exception. Like the shark creeping up in Jaws, you don’t notice them until they’re rubbing up against your thigh begging for your left over food with their gaze. Then, once the food is all gone, they miraculously disappear again, never seen or heard again for the rest of the night.
The sun sets early in January, so even though dinner was by candlelight against the fiercely dark sky, it was still early and no one was tired. We noticed our Berber hosts had been gone for some time and we began speculating their whereabouts. Everyone crossed their fingers that they were building us a bonfire and much to our fortune, we leaned out of the huge tent to see a small flickering glow not far away.
For a short hour or two against the cold of the bare desert air, twenty-some travelers circled the fire. The Berbers brought out drums and made as much noise as they wanted hollering into the night sky. No one was going to come give us a warning for excess noise – there was no one near. We knew there were other people in the desert by the tiny dots of bonfires we saw in the distance, but we still felt so isolated in our few square meters of sandy space.
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The Berber men clearly grew up alongside each other with the way they elaborated on each other’s movements and words. I fell in love with traditional Berber music so much that I bought a CD from one of several music peddlers back in the medina in Marrakech the next day. The Berbers had done this drum-and-song performance too many times and quickly passed off one of the three drums to the crowd. Apparently, there was not one musician in the crowd because every body passed down the drum like a hot potato. I banged on it a little bit to the tune of the Berbers, but quickly passed it on to a Spaniard and a Portuguese who very mockingly tried to imitate the Berber songs, but the Berbers took it all in good humor.
Not really having slept the night before, my boyfriend and I were one of the first people to retire and so we pulled out our very noisy emergency bivvys as additional cover to the heavy, but not necessarily warm, blankets. It turned out to be a good choice because the next morning we seemed to be the only ones who slept through the cold. Late in the night or early in the morning, I heard the howl of dogs or coyotes and mused with my boyfriend what the desert’s native animal species are. My thought was that there probably aren’t many.
In the morning I anticipated viewing the sun breaking over the horizon. I didn’t set an alarm clock thinking our guides would gather us to watch it. Unfortunately, I opened to my eyes in the morning to see light already shining through the slit in our tent. What a missed photo opportunity.
We got right back on the camels after a dry breakfast with warm drinks, coffee and the typical over-sweetened Moroccan fresh-mint tea called “lekama” or “nana” in Arabic. We finally saw the landscape surrounding us: flat, hard, gray sand and low, purple mountains on the horizon. To my utter dismay, we weren’t going to have any time to explore the area, to just walk as far as our will would take us. They wanted to get us back on the dromedaries and get us to the bus quickly. The journey we paid for was over.
So even though we never had proper bonding time with our fellow travelers, and the trip turned out completely different than I imagined it would be, all was right in the world because nothing in Morocco is ever as anyone says it’s going to be. If you ask for directions to the city center from the bus station, three men will point you in three different directions and each tell you it’s only 10 minutes away.
Photos and video by author