Sitting at Cafe de France on the main pedestrian avenue in the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira, I try to wrap my mind around all I’ve seen and done in the past few weeks in this fascinating country. My friends have gone home and my time is my own. I’m free to linger at a cafe sipping cappuccino until I feel the urge to walk the long stretch of beach just south of town. Eating whenever I feel like it, I’ve planted myself at this small cafe that serves delicious omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I remember back to my favorite things about this trip, packed full of amazing Moroccan adventures.
Here’s a postcard with a brief glimpse of our Moroccan adventures of the past few weeks…
The Moroccan people are so charming. This natural charm makes it easy for tourists to get sucked into the web of the “Moroccan Street Guide” network. Unfortunately, it happened to us a few times in Marrakech and again in Ouarzazate.
It starts with a simple “Where you from?” Once they’ve broken the ice, they suck you in with interesting travel tips or stories of their family living in a remote cave in the High Atlas Mountains.
It’s our first day in Marrakech and we’re doing some shopping in the souk. My friend Maureen asks a shopkeeper for restaurant suggestions. Before we know it, we’re following some random guy through small, twisting passageways and into a hidden restaurant. A charming place but we’re not really hungry, just kind of curious and tell him we may be back later.
So, he hands us off to “Restaurant Guy” who suggests: “Follow me, I’ll show you the inside of this amazing riad”. (A riad is a traditional Moroccan home or palace. Many are now used as hotels or guest houses.)
Obediently, we follow him and find it truly is an amazingly beautiful building! He continues walking and we follow, winding through a maze of more twisted back alleys and secret passageways. Then he hands us off to his partner, “Carpet Shop Guy”.
Carpet Shop Guy
Suddenly, we find ourselves stuck in the middle of the “Moroccan Street Guide” web and decide to just give in and embrace the cultural experience. We sit down and relax, sip the mint tea that is offered, and listen to the fascinating carpet tales shared by Carpet Shop Guy.
(Fortunately, Carpet Shop Guy seems much more interested in scoring a date with Laura than scoring a sale on a carpet. Sadly, he fails on both.)
Stargazing in the Sahara
After a few days in Marrakech, Laura and I sign up for one of those dreaded 3-day/2-night group tours, wanting to ride a camel and spend a night in the desert. As much as I hate group tours, this seems the easiest way to get to where we wanted to go.
Luckily, our eclectic group of 12 turns out to be amazing – mostly younger (but isn’t everyone?) from Germany, Holland, Japan, Argentina, and Spain. We are 12 random strangers stuck together for 3 days and blend beautifully. There isn’t that one annoying person typical of most group tours.
Late in the afternoon on the second day, we finally catch our first glimpse of the majestic Sahara Desert near Merzouga. Our camel train is waiting, so we hop on for a sunset caravan to our camp.
As we ride through the desert, the sun sinks lower on the horizon. The intense colors of the desert sand shift with the changing light. We arrive at base camp just as the sun sets and ushers in the cooler desert night air. It is so quiet.
Famished after a long day on the road, we devour the delicious Berber dinner in the communal mess tent. After dessert, our group continues the desert trek on foot to the tents that will be our home for the night. To get there, we hike straight up the side of a very steep sand dune. The night is black, lit by just a few twinkling stars, and Laura and I struggle to drag our “50-something” asses up that steep dune. The 20-somethings scamper over us.
We catch our breath, stash our bags in the tent, and then join the group by the campfire. Sprawling on thick blankets, we pass around a hookah and listen to the sounds of traditional Berber music.
Beautiful night. Mellow vibe. Watching falling stars and making wishes.
Suddenly, a group of obnoxious European drunks crash our campfire, bringing with them a boom box blaring pounding dance music, the kind you’d likely find in a trendy Marrakech night club. (It seems so wrong in every possible way!)
Sensing our disgust at this intrusion, our Berber guide grabs a pile of blankets. He arranges a stargazing camp far away from the fire and far from the dance party…and it is perfection!
(I count five shooting stars and make wishes on all.)
Somewhere along the winding road from Marrakech to Merzouga, we stop in a small village and find ourselves inside a really cool ancient building now used as a carpet shop. We listen as our Berber guide Abraham explains the process of traditional carpet weaving. A woman sits on the floor and demonstrates the time-consuming process of creating this beautiful art. Later, Abraham rolls out a bunch of beautiful carpets for us to admire (and to hopefully buy).
I’m not interested in adding more “stuff” to my semi-nomadic life, so I wander up to the roof. I admire the view of the ancient village and begin chatting with one of the Berber nomads. He very kindly invites me and Laura to stop in their village on the way back from the desert and stay a while, and offers to host us in his family cave! Cool!
“My wife will show you how to cook like a Berber nomad!” (Hmmm….sounds intriguing!)
“We’ll take you to see the flamingo lake very near the cave!” (Cool!)
I begin to visualize my fascinating Berber cultural immersion article and stunning photos being published in National Geographic magazine! What a unique cultural experience!
Excitedly, I mention the invitation to Laura and her response is a bit less excited. Later, we discuss it with a well-traveled guy in our group, an Argentinian who had spent five years traveling the world.
“What would you do?” I ask him. Sadly, even this well-traveled Argentinian is a bit less enthusiastic than I had hoped.
I finally had to accept this reality – it will either be a really cool, mind-blowing cultural experience … or a really terrifying hostage situation.
After a little more debate, we choose a safer alternate plan and create our own Southern Morocco Tour. (Maybe next time?)
(What would YOU do?)
I’m not a prude by any means, but I’m slightly appalled by the skimpy clothing worn by some of the tourists here in Essaouira. Yesterday I witnessed one woman’s buttocks swing freely below her tiny, white shorts as she struts down the street and right by the mosque. Just a few moments ago, a young female tourist strolled by in tiny black shorts and a midriff-baring crop top. If I’d been quicker with my camera, I would have captured a shot of her standing next to a local woman, modestly covered from head to toe.
It’s barely 70 degrees out. Cover up a little! Respect the local culture! (Do I sound just like my Mother?)
For more stories of our Moroccan adventures, see “Sahara Desert Tours” and “Adventures in Morrocco – Winging it through Southern Morocco“.
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