The Sahara

We pulled up to a fancy hotel that was under construction. M handed each of us a liter of bottled water, then led us through the building to a courtyard by a plunge pool, ringed with blue-and-white-striped tents over chaise lounges, and behind it was the full-out freaking Sahara, its big bright orange dunes cutting up into the sky. 

After a bathroom break, which I made such a job of that we were all late for the camel ride (I’d been quietly suffering from a bad case of travel tummy ever since we left, which is a great problem to have on a two-day car trip across squat-toilet land), a guy in full Berber costume led us over to four camels lounging quietly at the edge of the desert. The camels were tied to each other with rope, the ropes looped around their lower jaws. The guy helped us each mount one at a time, placing his foot on the camel’s front leg until we were seated, and then letting the camel stand, which it did by pitching forward and then back with a giant wobbling lurch.

I should mention here that the camels in Merzouga are not actually camels (two humps), but dromedaries (one hump). I’m going to refer to them as camels throughout, however, because dromedary is a long and awkward word to type. The camels are saddled with a big, round cushion that covers their hump, and there’s a little bar handle at the front of the cushion, should you need to use it, but you don’t mostly, except occasionally when the camel skitters down an unbroken sand dune. Now, I haven’t ridden every kind of four-footed pack animal the world has to offer, but I still feel fairly confident in declaring a camel the dullest animal you can mount. Riding one is a lot like straddling a pommel horse atop the deck of a large boat that’s docked in the marina on a particularly calm day. And camels aren’t speedy animals – our guide, after all, was leading the camel train on foot. But they can tote a lot. Nomad families primarily use them to carry all their junk.

We headed into the dunes under a setting sun and, thanks to my delay, by the time the hotel was just out of sight, it was pitch black. We rode mostly in silence for two hours. It was about fifteen minutes before D began to wonder repeatedly when we would be arriving at the camp, and then at one point, she was convinced that the flashing red light atop the satellite tower back in the town was someone or something in the dunes directly behind her. So, the entire camel train ground to a halt while M and our guide looked all up and down the dunes trying to figure out what she was talking about and V attempted to explain to her about distance and perspective and how sometimes tall things that are far away can appear quite near even if they aren’t.

Finally, she was convinced, and we started up again.

After a long time on the camels, we crested some dunes and saw before us the dim black shapes of a group of tents and many other camels lined up and sleeping to one side. Our guide helped us dismount.

“Will we be the only people in the tent, or are there other tourists?” asked V.

M only stared at her because, sadly, he still hadn’t managed to learn English in the two days we’d been traveling together. V repeated her question, and he stared at her again.

Meanwhile, R and I left them all behind trying to figure that one out, and stepped into the tent, which was filled with tourists sitting on low cushions that were laid all along the sides of the tent, encircling three long, low tables. R and I sat down and a big, bearded guy sitting across from us asked if we were American. This was David, who was from Long Island, and he was sitting with another woman from Brooklyn and an adorable couple from Spain. R and I joined them for dinner, and we liked them a lot. David was toward the middle of a backpacking trip, most of which he had spent in Spain, and the woman (whose name I didn’t get) was a ballet instructor who had just gotten out of a bad relationship and so was traveling (again, mostly in Spain) for a year or so. She would be heading back in April. The Spanish couple were both illustrators. The four of them had met in their tour van, which also included nine Brazilian women who were all sitting at the table next to us, and who were all gregarious, very young and wearing plenty of jewelry and full make-up (“When we were about to get on the camels,” our new friends told us, “they all went into the bathroom and started putting on more make-up.”).

Dinner was big chicken-and-rice tagines that were set in the middle of the tables and that we all ate out of the serving dishes. Our table went through two of them, and two baskets of bread, and then there were oranges. After dinner, R, David, the dance instructor and I all went out to lie on a sand dune under the stars.

You could see the whole galaxy in the deep night desert sky – there were more stars visible than I’ve ever seen at one time before. R, who was born in Queens and grew up on Staten Island, was particularly blown away by the stars and really wanted to see her first shooting star, but somehow wasn’t able to spot one (neither was I), although David and the dancer were seeing them right and left. While we were lying there, we learned that David was only 18 and had just graduated from an alternative boarding school in Massachusetts. R had all sorts of advice for him. I had none.

Once we got too cold, we went back in the tent, and the guys who worked there pulled out the bongo drums. There was drumming and dancing for a really, really long time. The Berber guys led us in traditional dances, which involve a number of movements repeated over and over: (1) stepping in a circle hunched over with one hand on your lower back and the other hand extended in front of you, as if you are an osteoporotic old lady going out to check the mail; (2) pinching some of the cloth from the bottom of your shirt and wringing it in your hands like you’re trying to get out a stain; (3) dancing in a circle while holding hands, and lifting one leg up slightly to wave that foot back and forth in the middle of the circle; and (4) all holding hands in a line and doing a sort of red-light-green-light, wherein you fake-run at the drummers several times, stopping short, then finally run all the way at them, and then kneel down and wave your hands in their faces.

Everyone was having lots of fun. Some of the guests were pretty good at drumming, too, and others picked it up fast. The Brazilian girls performed any number of good old Portuguese summer camp songs. The Spanish guy dashed off an excellent drawing of our hosts at their drums, which made them very happy, and we all passed around his book and looked at his amazing sketches of Morocco. Having any sort of non-language-based skill is a terrific asset for a traveler – it gives you a way to communicate with strangers about something that isn’t purely monetary. I wish I could do something interesting.

Eventually, R and I started to nod off in the middle of the festivities, and one of our hosts insisted he show us to our tent. We said we weren’t ready to go yet, but we were clearly bringing down the party and he insisted, saying we could always come back if we felt livelier. We were lead to a small peripheral tent with some mattresses on the floor and given ample piles of warm and pungent wool blankets. I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them again, it was because one of the guides was hollering in the tent flap that it was time for breakfast.

Outside the tent, in the predawn desert, it was freezing cold. I wandered off behind a sand dune to pee, and then caught the last of breakfast (incidentally, Moroccan continental breakfasts are always a variety of cold, dry crepe-type breads with apricot jam, thick instant coffee, and sometimes oranges). Then it was time to hop back on the camels. This time, R and I were in a train with David and the Spanish couple.

We rode the two hours back as the sun rose over the dunes. The dunes were a perfect pink coral, the sky an opaque turquoise, and together, the whole scene looked more like a painted set than a real-life landscape you could actually ride a camel into.

When we arrived back at the hotel, R and I explained to M that we would not be returning to Marrakesh with the group, and we asked him to drop us off at Chez Julia, the hostel we’d picked. Because R speaks a little French, she had been our group’s designated translator and had spent the entire two day car trip in the passenger seat, practicing her language skills with M. Naturally, he had fallen deeply in love with her and looked devastated at this news. He awkwardly handed her a beaded necklace, which she tried to give back immediately, and they went back and forth for a while, to R’s discomfort and my great delight.

Chez Julia is run by Julia, an Austrian sculptor and church restorer who moved to Merzouga and opened up an inn, which she painted in soft desert colors and decorated beautifully. The inn is of straw-and-clay and has a number of rooms around a little central courtyard with palm trees and a million cats. There are more rooms on the roof, and a rooftop café area with tables and chairs. Julia is a tall woman with a wild poof of light-colored hair. She speaks French but not English and with us, she spoke very slowly and deliberately, and also a lot. She greeted us at the door, showed us several possible rooms, and, once we had selected the one we wanted, led us into a little parlor for breakfast. She then gave us a great deal of information about which bathrooms we should use and which we shouldn’t, and that we should tell her when we’re about to shower and after we’d finished so she could turn the water on and off, and that she could arrange any number of trips for us, and all about the various trips, and that we should always keep all the doors closed so the cats cannot get in, and that we should be careful walking around because the men would bother us and any number of things besides.

We were so tired and so happy to be there and not in the car that we just agreed to everything, including a number of excursions, which we didn’t bargain at all on or ask many questions about. R’s and my system for interpreting French involved both of us just saying ‘oui, oui, oui,’ and then afterwards, conferring with each other to see what between the two of us we’d managed to figure out. We usually got the gist of every conversation, but then sometimes, we didn’t. This time, we knew we’d agreed to go on some sort of camel ride the next morning, but we didn’t know where or for how long. We knew at some point, there would be a sandwich, though, because Julia really emphasized the sandwich part. She talked about the sandwich a lot.

After all this had been covered, we had a lovely breakfast of fresh-baked bread and delicious coffee with fresh milk. While I ate, a darling tiny kitten crept through the door, leapt into my lap and settled there, purring like an entitled motorboat. I was delighted until Julia came in, saw the kitten and freaked out.

“Oh, no, no,” she said. “Tres, tres malade.” Which is not at all what you want to hear when you’ve just handled an animal in the middle of nowhere in a developing country.

Julia is a soft touch for cats, and takes them in whenever they fall ill and get tossed out by some other place. It’s as if a cat bomb went off over Morocco – the whole country (and especially Fez) is lousy with felines. The cats at Julia’s were particularly well-fed, lively, slick and glossy, even if they all had distemper. This kitten ended up being so persistently adorable and insistent that R and I ended up holding it most of the time we were there anyway.

After we ate, we took showers (in the wrong bathroom, apparently), and then we walked around for a while, looking at the town. There wasn’t much to look at – Merzouga is very small. There are several lanes of houses and hotels off a main, paved road, which leads underneath an archway and into the “downtown,” which is one long street lined with restaurants and small shops selling clothing and postcards. R and I met some little boys, who walked around with us for a bit, and we spoke to each other in bits of broken French. At some point, they turned into another street, and I was just commenting on how nice it was to be out of the city, where you could have genuine interactions with people who weren’t hostile toward you or asking you for money, when one of the boys yelled for our attention and then made rude, theatrical gestures with his hands referring to our breasts. It was so surprising that I kept thinking I had misunderstood, but that was definitely what it was, and after that, R and I less comfortable walking around by ourselves.

After we’d checked our email, we stopped at one of the little restaurants and had a sandwich. We’d been called in by a young man, F, who spoke perfect English. He told us that he used to work for Julia and she said she’d hire him again when she had more tourists, and he asked us to mention that he’d said hello and was available to take us around. I said that I was pretty sure we’d already agreed to go with somebody else, but that I’d mention him (but I didn’t, because I couldn’t communicate with Julia anyway).

After we’d eaten our sandwiches, we headed back to Julia’s because we were pretty sure we were supposed to be there at 3:00 for something we’d agreed to. A man who worked for Julia, A, was there with his four-wheel drive, and he drove us around and showed us some things. We couldn’t really understand what he was showing us, but I believe he drove us to where the salt lake usually is, but was dried up now because of the drought. I think he said that there weren’t as many nomad families who’d come in this winter, because they usually come to water their animals in the lake, but there wasn’t any water this year, so they stayed further South, but some of them dropped their children off to stay in the town during the cold weather while they stayed out with the animals. He showed us where there were small sand dunes forming where the lake had dried up, and I think he explained that these dunes demonstrated how the sand was gradually blown in from the desert, and how the desert expanded, forming new dunes.

Then, he took us to a village where we were to hear some Sudanese musicians. We were led into a big reception room where benches ringed a performance area, and encouraged to examine the various promotional photos and news articles displayed on the walls while the musicians assembled themselves. Gradually, one by one, looking like they hadn’t at all expected to be called in to work late on Sunday afternoon in the off-season, nine young guys and one boy filed in wearing long white dishdashas over their jeans and T-shirts. They gave us tea and a bowl of peanuts, and then settled in wearily behind their instruments and took turns playing and dancing, while R and I, the sole audience, clapped mechanically and tried to look enthusiastic. The situation was awkward on a level British sitcoms only dream of. At some point, the little kid had to pull us up for audience participation, and so we went around with him in a reprise of the dance moves we’d learned in the Berber tent the night before. Eventually, things wound down and it seemed to be over, but no one left or made any move at all. The lead guy chatted with us a bit, and we bought a CD called “Les Pigeons de Sable” (“The Black Pigeons,” I translated. “The Sand Pigeons,” R corrected.). And still, we all sat. Finally, we asked if we should stay or leave.

“It is as you like,” said the lead guy, so we left, feeling very foolish. A was sitting in the shade outside, and he drove us back to Julia’s, where we had soup and crepes and then went to bed early.

The next morning, R and I had a big breakfast in advance of our camel ride.

R had to use the bathroom and, after an anxious debate between the two of us on which bathroom we were supposed to be using, left to do so. I heard her be accosted by Julia in the hall, who went into one of her lengthy French monologues. I heard R going ‘oui, oui, oui’ and then suddenly ‘no, no, no,’ and then she came back in looking like this:

Julia insisted we both sport these for our desert trip. She had one in pink to match my scarf:

Today, our guide was a young, cute guy, S, who was waiting just out front with two camels. R and I mounted up and were led solemnly out to the dunes. We looked exceedingly silly being led through town in our head scarves atop our camels, and I felt like some of the more self-aware NYC tourists must feel when riding atop a double-decker bus on the way to Magnolia Bakery for a Sex In the City tour.

S took us a couple hours out to Erg Chebbi, where there’s a really big dune around 150 meters high. We parked the camels in the oasis at the base, and S said we could climb the dune if we wanted – the best way was to walk up the crest. I walked up about half of it, then dropped to all fours and shimmied up another ¼ of it, and then I was content to stop. It’s pretty unnerving when you get toward the top of a giant dune – there’s a lot of wind, and the sand is crumbly and you could definitely just roll right on down. More adventurous people ski and snowboard down the dunes, though, and I bet that’s really fun.

When we’d worn that out, we climbed back down and joined S in a tent in the oasis, where we finally had our much-hyped sandwich (it was Laughing Cow cheese food product and butter). We sat and talked for a long time, and then headed back through the dunes. We stopped on the way to climb around and look at some beetles, and for me to barrel roll down a dune a few times (which confused S so I guess tourists don’t do that so much, although I think it’s the natural response to being confronted with sand dunes).

When we got back to Julia’s, R went to take a shower (after tossing a coin as to which shower she was supposed to use), and while she was gone, Julia and A ran up to me in a great state and launched in to a flurry of excited French.

Now, I do not speak French, but I got really good at understanding it. Whether that is because of its similarity to English, or because I’ve watched so many Godard films, I don’t know, but I was pretty impressed with my own abilities. So, I was pretty sure that what they were telling me was that the night bus to Fez that R and I had planned on taking that evening wasn’t coming, because the mountain pass to the North that the bus had to cross was snowed under, and that they didn’t know when the pass would be open again. A machine had to clear it, but also, the snow then had to hold off so that it didn’t get snowed in the next night. They hoped we’d be able to leave the following day, but they weren’t really sure.

So we settled in for another night at Julia’s. That night, four guys our age from Switzerland had arrived and they sat at the other table in the sitting room that night as we all had dinner. After dinner, they played some sort of pen-and-paper game, and R and I smiled at them politely, hoping to be invited to join, but we weren’t. We talked to them a little bit, but they turned out to be the one-upping kind of backpackers who are all about how they managed to pay less than you or did something more authentically or without any help, which is something you run into a lot with backpackers – competitive travel – and I find it really tiresome. So we went to bed early again.

The next day, we took it easy. We sat on the roof and wrote our postcards, and then we wandered into town to check our email. Julia was really sick and didn’t come out of her room all day, and no one else was able to give us a satisfactory answer about the bus. While we were in town, we met a tourist, P, from Montreal who was really eager to make some friends, and we hung out with him for a while. We all ate lunch at the sandwich place R and I had been to before, and P asked the guys who worked there about the bus, and they said that the pass was still snowed under and maybe tomorrow. F was there, and he said he might stop by later to see Julia since she was sick.

“She is my ex-boss, so it is perfectly normal that I would stop by to see how she is, right?” he muttered quietly to himself, and I wondered if he and Julia had had a falling out or something.

R and I went back to Julia’s and had just sat down when a woman who worked there beckoned us out to the door. Guess who it was?

M! He told us something about how he had not ended up driving D and V back to Marrakesh after all. I assumed he’d found a way to come back to hang out with R and was now asking if we wanted to do something, but R insisted this wasn’t what he was saying at all, though she couldn’t understand what he was talking about. After we all stared at each other in painful silence for five minutes, he said “Well, maybe next time!” and left. This was a real swing and a miss for M.

Shortly after M left, F showed up to see Julia. While he waited to see if she wanted to see him, he made some phone calls to the bus company for us, but they were closed. R went off to have some time by herself. She wasn’t as indifferent to the idea of eventually getting back to our lives in New York as I was, and was finding this whole stuck-in-the-desert thing to be a little stressful.

Meanwhile, F told me about his life in Morocco, how he’d gone away for school and been horribly lonely and that it wasn’t good to be too much alone, which he was always telling Julia (possibly a clue as to why she’d let him go). He also told me a lot about his work history. I didn’t catch all of it, but it seems like these young guys who work for hotels and things in Morocco sign actual multi-year contracts, so if something goes badly in their work situation, they have to break the contract, which can reflect badly on them to future employers. F had worked for a German guy for years. They’d been pretty good friends and F spent a lot of time at his boss’s house. Then, one year the man accused F of being in love with his wife and started to treat him really badly, but at the same time, refused to let him out of his contract, so F had broken it. “I learned not to have a personal relationship with your employers,” he summed up. Then Julia hired him, but she wasn’t getting enough guests to keep him on staff. F was a really nice guy, but kind of an Eeyore.

Then, the bus company called back and said that they did have a bus going to Fez that night, but that it was leaving from Rissani, so when R came back, we packed up our stuff and F walked us in to town and helped us negotiate a ride with a guy, who we paid a stupid amount to take us plus a free-loading family of four into town. For the whole 30-minute ride, the woman sat silently between us while the little boy on her lap gaped open-mouthed at R, and the little girl in the backseat played with my hair.

We got to Rissani, a dirty, crappy little town, a couple hours before the bus left, and soon enough, we were on our way back to Fez at last.

(More pictures of our time in Merzouga can be seen here.)


  1. Nate says:

    Hi Elizabeth! You have some pretty amazing photos here. This sounds like an incredible journey. I never really considered the possibility of visiting the Sahara desert but after reading your story it sounds like it could be a pretty spectacular sight.
    Thanks for sharing the story and photos!
    – Nate


    1. Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Nate! I would highly recommend it. Seeing the desert was never something I’d thought much about, either, but once I saw it, I realized how awesome it is. Spectacular is the right word, definitely.


      1. Elizabeth says:

        Oh, and to give credit where it’s due, I should also mention that most of these photos were taken by my friend R.


  2. The best post yet! They’ve all been great but the way you work in the personalities of some of the characters you met along the way, especially Julia, really makes this stand out. I like the way you say a lot with very few words.


    1. Elizabeth says:

      Thanks again, Thomas! I’m glad you say that, as giving a good picture of people in only a few words is one of my main goals in travel writing. It’s difficult to keep these posts from running on for pages – there are so many details I want to include!


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