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, 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 – just a few of my favorite things about this trip.
Here’s a postcard with a brief glimpse of our Moroccan adventures of the past few weeks…
The Moroccan people can be so charming, which makes it easy for tourists to get sucked into the web of the “Moroccan Street Guide” network. It happened a few times in Marrakech and again in Ouarzazate.
They may start 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.
On our first day in Marrakech, we were doing some shopping in the souk when my friend Maureen asked a shopkeeper for restaurant suggestions. Before we knew it, we were following some random guy through small, twisting passageways and into a hidden restaurant. A charming place but we weren’t really hungry, just kind of curious and said we may be back later.
So, he handed us off to “Restaurant Guy” who suggested: “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.)
We obediently followed him and found it truly was an amazingly beautiful building! He continued walking and we followed, winding through a maze of more twisted back alleys and secret passageways – and then handed us off to “Carpet Shop Guy”.
Realizing were stuck in the middle of the “Moroccan Street Guide” web, we decided to just give in and embrace the cultural experience. We sat down and relaxed, sipped the mint tea that was offered, and listened to the fascinating carpet tales shared by Carpet Shop Guy.
(Fortunately, Carpet Shop Guy seemed much more interested in scoring a date with Laura than scoring a sale on a carpet. He failed on both.)
Stargazing in the Sahara
After a few days in Marrakech, Laura and I signed 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 seemed the easiest way to get to where we wanted to go.
Luckily, our eclectic group of 12 turned out to be amazing – mostly younger (but isn’t everyone?) from Germany, Holland, Japan, Argentina, and Spain. We were 12 strangers stuck together for 3 days and blended beautifully. There wasn’t that one annoying person typical of most group tours.
Late in the afternoon on the second day, we finally caught our first glimpse of the majestic Sahara Desert near Merzouga. Our camel train was waiting, so we hopped on for a sunset caravan to our camp.
As we rode, the sun was sinking low on the horizon and the intense colors of the desert sand kept shifting with the changing light. We arrived at base camp just as the sun set bringing in the cooler desert night air. It was so quiet.
After enjoying a delicious Berber dinner in the communal mess tent, our group continued the desert trek on foot to the tents that would be our home for the night – hiking straight up the side of a very steep sand dune. The night was black, lit by just a few twinkling stars, and Laura and I struggled to drag our “50-something” asses up that steep dune while watching the 20-somethings scamper past us.
After catching our breath, we stashed our bags in the tent and then joined the group by the campfire. Sprawling on thick blankets, we passed around a hookah and listened to the sounds of traditional Berber music.
Beautiful night. Mellow vibe. Watching falling stars and making wishes.
And then a group of obnoxiously European drunks crashed 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 was just so wrong in every possible way!)
Sensing our disgust at this intrusion, our Berber guide grabbed a pile of blankets and set up a stargazing camp far away from the fire and far from the dance party…and it was perfect!
(I counted five shooting stars and made wishes on all.)
Somewhere along the long and winding road from Marrakech to Merzouga, we made a stop in a small village and ended up inside a really cool ancient building now used as a carpet shop. Our Berber guide, Abraham, explained the process of carpet weaving while a woman demonstrated the time-consuming process of creating this traditional art. He rolled out a bunch of beautiful carpets for us to admire (and to hopefully buy).
Not interested in adding more “stuff” to my semi-nomadic life, I wandered up to the roof to enjoy the view and began chatting with one of the Berber nomads. He very kindly invited me and Laura to stop in their village on the way back from the desert and stay a while, offering to host us in his family cave!
“My wife will show you how to cook like a Berber nomad!” (Hmmm….sounded intriguing!)
“We’ll take you to see the flamingo lake very near the cave!” (Cool!)
I began to visualize my fascinating Berber cultural immersion article and stunning photos being published in National Geographic magazine! What a unique cultural experience!
When I mentioned the invitation to Laura, her response was a bit less excited. Later, we discussed it with a well-traveled guy in our group, an Argentinian who had spent five years traveling the world.
“What would you do?” I asked him. Sadly, even this well-traveled Argentinian was a bit less enthusiastic than I had hoped.
I finally accepted this reality – it could either be a really cool, mind-blowing cultural experience … or a really terrifying hostage situation.
After a little more debate, we chose a safer alternate plan. (Maybe next time?)
(What would YOU have done?)
I’m not a prude by any means, but I’m a slightly appalled by the skimpy clothing worn by some of the tourists here in Essaouira. Yesterday I witnessed one woman’s buttocks swinging freely below her tiny, white shorts as she strutted 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?)
Stay tuned for more recap of our Moroccan adventures, advice on Morocco travel, and stories of the amazing people we met along the way!
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