The next morning, R and I were in the dark lobby at 6:00am. So were two pretty young women, who introduced themselves to us as D and V, nurses from Dublin. As some dudes led the four of us across the deserted early morning Djemma el-Fna, D and V told us that they’d been in Morocco for several days now, were finding it exceedingly expensive and were surprised it was so cold.
“We only brought T-shirts,” said V. “I bought this fleece from a vendor, and ooh, he saw me coming. Paid more than I ever would at home. Look, we got these henna tattoos, too. $25! Got taken. Horrible, aren’t they?”
The men leading us soon stopped at a small car, put our bags in the trunk, and gestured that we should get in. One of them got in, too, and drove us to a garage entrance, where he spent some time filling out paperwork with another guy.
“Are we going in this car, then?” said D. “The whole way? You’d think they’d give us a bus, so we could stretch our legs.”
“They don’t tell you nothing, do they,” observed V.
Soon, our driver got back in the car, and we headed out of the city. He pointed at the giant, snow-capped Atlas Mountain peaks that loomed in the near distance, visible as soon as you emerge from the pink city walls of Marrakesh:
and said something about them in French. R was able to establish that he was M, our driver, and that he would be taking us to the Sahara.
M was a very thin Berber man with a quick smile. He seemed rather shy, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the case when you can’t speak someone’s language at all. He also liked to crank the tunes while he drove, and we listened to his CDs at a high volume the entire way – mainly compilation hits of various American and British recording artists, collaborating with African artists on songs about Africa and other things. This one was heavy in the rotation. Waka waka! We settled in for a long drive.
We were pretty much immediately in the mountains, jagging back and forth on sharp switchbacks, so one of the first things that happened was D got massively car sick (she made it nearly all the way out of the car first, reserving the bulk of it for the ground in front of a group of impassive villagers watching her from their stoop). She was really embarrassed and apologetic about it (“I didn’t expect the road would be so windy.”), and was completely green and unhappy for the rest of the day, although after a few hours, M bought her some Dramamine, which helped a lot.
We drove through a mountain town, and M was saluted several times by passing pedestrians, stopping the car to leap out and kiss them on the cheeks. R was able to translate that he was born in this town. M had a lot of friends all across Morocco. We would frequently stop at a cafe where everyone was really excited to see him, and he would tell us ‘10 minut,’ disappear inside, and return shortly with a small plastic cup of very strong coffee. He had at least 10 of these cups in a day. I didn’t see anything odd about this, until R pointed out that one only requires so much coffee and that these stops were clearly about something else. And not tourism.
But we made plenty of stops for tourism, too. “Photo!” M would announce every 20 minutes or so, and we’d pull over at some breathtakingly scenic vista and stand around for a few minutes taking pictures and telling children we didn’t want to buy any camels woven from straw (or, in D’s and V’s case, buying many camels woven from straw). At first, this was very exciting for us. Then, we began to respond to “Photo!” with an indecisive silence, and finally we all began to answer “Photo?” with a blunt chorus of “No.”
The main stop of the first day, though, was at Ait Benhaddou, which is the famous ksar featured in Lawrence of Arabia and about a million other films set in Africa or the Middle East. We stopped at Ait around noon.
“Is this the hotel?” asked D, as we pulled up outside the giant, ancient walled city.
“I don’t think so. I think we’re staying in tents, aren’t we? Camping in the desert,” said V.
“That’s tomorrow night,” I said. “Tonight, it’s a hotel, but we’re not getting there until about 7:00.”
“Cor,” said D. “What are we going to do until then?”
“See things,” said R.
After lunch, M introduced us to our guide, Ismail, who would take us around the ksar. We asked if we needed to have a guide, and Ismail said that, in his opinion, it was better to.
Which turned out to be fine, because Ismail spoke good English and gave us a very interesting tour. Inside the ksar itself, all the straw-and-clay homes are renovated once every five years by their owners. Solar panels have been installed, so the homes are more livable now, but because of the water shortages, most families now live outside the ksar in the more modern town across the river. A big source of income is from Hollywood films that are shot there, and everyone in Ait has been in any number of major motion pictures. I spent the entire tour trying to remember the name of the terrible film with John Malkovitch and Debra Winger that I was pretty sure had been shot there. This drove me crazy for the rest of our trip; I couldn’t remember it until I got home and googled it (The Sheltering Sky, obviously, and it was indeed shot there).
When we finished the tour, Ismail walked us back out, where we rejoined D (who’d felt too sick to enter, and had been installed in the shade on a pillow by some friendly entrance gate workers), and, after Ismail had spent some time helping V resolve an issue with her camera batteries (for the second time in as many days, she’d paid about $25 for batteries, only to have them run down after taking four pictures. She wanted to return them to the shop, but instead, Ismail helped her spend a lot more on some better batteries that he promised would last), it was time to settle up with him.
Tipping is super awkward when you’re traveling somewhere like Morocco. There is no standard, or the standards have probably changed since your guidebook was written. You never know how much to give people, and you often don’t know if you’re supposed to give them anything. People are constantly trying to hose you, or press themselves on you until you pay them to go away. Also, all tourists are super rich in the local economy and everyone knows it wouldn’t kill them to throw a little money around. But this makes every interaction transactional, which is horribly alienating and depressing.
Anyway, with Ismail, we enjoyed his tour, and we decided to give him $2.50 each, not having any idea what would be appropriate. But then, he got really quiet and gave us the look I used to give Europeans when I waited on them at a restaurant at Lincoln Center. It turned out that he had paid $5 for our entry into the ksar, which we had thought was a little under $2 (this is because M said it would be 50d, and we thought he’d said 15). We apologized and paid him the additional $5, and then he was happy.
After our tour, we sat on the curb for awhile while M and V smoked and a server from the restaurant made a very elaborate, extended pass at V. “You stay the night here? The skies are beautiful here at night – a thousand stars, like your eyes. For you, I would give 300 camels. When you come back, you will stay the night here. Maybe the best night you ever have. Yes? I think you will come.”
V got a lot of this kind of thing. She was pretty, but so was D – I think it was because V offered cigarettes to everyone. Smoking always facilitates friendship, conversation, harassment and insults.
We continued on. More coffee breaks. We stopped at one cafe, and V allowed an older man who ran a shop next door to dress her up in traditional garb, eventually selling her a headscarf. “Paid way too dear for a bit of cloth,” she remarked later. “But he was funny. He went to so much trouble, pulling everything out. I had to buy something. It was so strange – when he was telling me the price, he just grabbed my breast! Like this, right out. And then said ‘for you, special price.’ What do you think that was about?”
We drove all afternoon, stopping frequently, as we climbed high into the Atlas, and then began winding through the Dades Gorges, D frequently asking if this was the hotel, and when would we be getting to the hotel.
“Oh, this is hell,” she said, just after sunset. “I’m going to die. Hotel? Excuse me? Hotel?”
“Two hour,” said M, and after she’d collapsed back into the car, he told the rest of us it was ten minutes.
That was our final stop, and when we got back in the car, M let V drive for a bit, much to the extreme consternation of one of the guides of the other tour groups that had been leapfrogging us along the same route all day. “Hey!” she said, banging on the window where M was sitting in the backseat. She made big, elaborate WTF gestures as V drove slowly out of the parking area and down the gorge.
“It’s not just that it’s windy,” said V. “But it’s driving on the wrong side, as well, innit?”
Still, we made it to the hotel in one piece, and checked in to our rooms. The hotel was charming, with balconies off every room facing the river and the plummeting gorge walls just beyond. R and I were hungry and tired, and went into the dining room right away, but it turned out that we weren’t allowed to sit until everyone had arrived. So, R and I went downstairs to where there was a little TV lounge, and we watched some Egypt coverage with M and another guy (a woman who worked in the hotel sat on a bench just outside, peaking in). Incidentally, I don’t know what anyone in Morocco thinks about Egypt – we weren’t able to talk to anyone in that much depth. A couple of people said things like, “That’s a mess, right there.” People toward the desert said it would be bad for tourism there in the East of the country. And the hotel owner where we stayed that night said that it could never happen in Morocco, because Moroccans are too happy. And those are all the quotes I have for you.
Dinner was dull and confusing. It took us a long time to get served, because D and V sat at a table for 5, assuming M would join us, but there was a table for 4 for us, M would not be joining us, and there was another group of 5 (Thai tourists) that were supposed to sit at the table they were at. Also, no one wanted to come right out with it, but after a full day in the car together, the four of us were kind of ready to split up for dinner. The opinion of my traveling companions was that this could all be easily sorted and communicated to the staff by removing place settings or bringing chairs as need be, but I knew that it could not, because of a very similar tour of Halong Bay, Vietnam that some of you might remember me writing about some years back. In this sort of situation, Allah himself could not move the plates or chairs, and absolutely nothing could happen in the dining room until each expected person was seated in their assigned place, which at long last they were, however resentfully.
On the bright side, I did get to have my first beer in over a week.
It had been very hot and sunny all day, but now that it was night and we were in the gorges, the air in the hotel was icy. I went straight to bed after dinner, but R spent some time downstairs trying to IM with her boyfriend, and instead, getting to talk at length with the hotel owner, who had lived in New York for 13 years and would now very much like to find a wife there. He asked her what my deal was.
The next morning, we were back in the car bright and early, and I fell fast asleep, only to be awoken by “Photo!” This happened all day, making me increasingly cranky.
After about an hour, M told us that we were going to visit a palmerie, whatever that was. We got out of the car at a small village in a palm-tree filled village that looked like this:
M introduced us to a tall, gangly man with bad teeth who, he said, would be our guide. This man wore one of the long hooded black ring-wraith robes that many men in Morocco wear, and under the hood of it, he had a little black knit cap, and on the edge of the cap was a tiny embroidered teddy bear.
This man led us into the palmerie. Two little boys ran alongside us hastily weaving palm fronds into little camels so that they could push them on us later. R and I were very annoyed, because we didn’t want a tour of the farmland and we didn’t want to give this man in the bear hat any money. I wanted to still be napping in the backseat.
Bearhat took us into the fields and explained the system they have set up for irrigating, in which water in the rainy season flows through the little trenches dug along the edges of the fields. Each gutter has a little mud dam, and the dams are removed and the fields hydrated in order, no exceptions, which has eliminated arguments about water access. There were women working in the fields.
Bearhat heaved a heavy sigh, and shook his head slowly. “Women here, you know, they do not go to school,” he said, pulling a sad face. “They only work. Work in the fields, work in the home.” He paused and waited for us to, I don’t know, clutch our bosoms in horror and get out our checkbooks. When we didn’t react at all, he tried again. “Women here are uneducated. Very hard life. But this is our way. Our traditions. Would you like to photograph the women washing clothes in the river?”
When we declined, he led us into town.
“Now I take you to see a real Berber family in their home. They are a cooperative, and making carpets.”
“Oh, no,” said R.
“It is good for you to see real family in their home, to talk to women,” he told her. “Because for you here, it is men, men, men all the time, yes?”
He then took us to a carpet shop where two women sat silently by while a man tried to sell us carpets for an hour.
They were lovely, hand-woven carpets. But we didn’t want any carpets. He pulled out every carpet in the shop (“Just for looking. You do not have to buy.”) and piled them up before D and V, who decided they might just buy a small one.
“Just a little one,” said D. “How much is this one?”
“That one?” said the man. “$150.”
“What, $150?” said D. “Oh, no, I could never pay that. Never mind.”
“What is your price?” he said.
“Oh, I couldn’t. But they are lovely, though.”
“Name your best price,” said the man, but D wouldn’t. This went on for a very long time, during which the man tried to explain to D how bargaining worked and D and V argued over whether it was 11 Euro to the dirham (V’s belief) or 11 dirhams to the Euro (D’s assurance).
“I dunno,” D finally said. “Maybe $2.50?”
The man looked stunned.
Somehow, we got from there to the point where both D and V were going to buy carpets (this whole thing went on for an eternity). D agreed to pay $37 for her rug, after explaining a few things (“$82! Why, that’s a whole day’s wages for me! Who buys here, millionaires?”), but V’s negotiation went on longer, because she really wanted the man to come down just a few dirham more and he would not.
“You’re going to refuse me over $5?” said the villager, incredulously. “Please understand, this rug is handwoven from camel hair.”
“$5 isn’t much to you,” replied V, with a knowing nod. “But it’s a great deal to me.”
At long last, the entire affair was over and bearhat led us back to the car, where all of the villagers had converged. M was very anxious for us to get in the car, but it took a little time for V and D to pay the boys for the straw camels, and then to ask M how many people they owed money to and how much they ought to pay.
“Nobody, nothing,” said M. “Please, we go. We must go now.”
After that, we headed out into the desert. The land became flat and dry almost immediately, and soon, we were hurling across a vast plain, Shakira crooning sweetly in our ears. We passed under a number of large stone arches, and M explained that the arches marked what Moroccans consider the frontier.
“What?” said D.
“He’s saying that now we’re in Algeria,” explained V.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yes, that’s what he said. M, are we in Morocco, still? Is this Morocco?”
“Yes, Moroccan frontier.”
“Oh. So we’ve not come to Algeria yet, but we will be shortly.”
“We’re going to the Sahara, I thought?”
“No, I thought that, too, but I was looking at the map,” said V. “The Sahara’s to the West, and we’re going East. So, this is the Algerian desert we’ll be going to. I wanted to see the Sahara, but I imagine this will be fine.”
“I wonder how much longer in this bloody car?”
On this stretch of road, we passed a couple gendarmes, and M explained (after slowing down to a crawl and being waved ahead) that everyone had to pay bribes to the cops on the roads – everywhere, but especially out toward the desert. But tourists were not bribed, and Moroccans with tourists in their cars were not bribed. I’d noticed that M had been waving over his steering wheel at oncoming vehicles the entire time that we’d been driving, and now that we’d passed the gendarmes, he started holding up two fingers at passing cars. Waving meant no cops up ahead, fingers indicated how many to expect.
Eventually, we stopped for lunch at a dusty roadside restaurant. R and I bought postcards. D had some of M’s coffee.
“Thick,” she said. “It’s like Guinness. D’ya like Guinness?”
Our Muslim guide did not understand her.
“Do you like Guinness?” she tried again, repeating herself until she was understood.
“Oh, no,” he finally said. “I like to smoke hash.”
We drove on. On and on and on. We stopped at a desert tent, where there were a number of wells and two very aggressive English-speaking young men and a cute kitten. We sat there for way too long, and then, once V had bought a couple of scarves and a quantity of jewelry (“$12.50 just for two scarves, a necklace, a bracelet and this rock thing,” she marveled. “They sure saw me coming.”), we finally got back in the car and in another 30 minutes had at long last reached our ultimate destination: the Sahara.