Friday, March 13, 2015


We were feeling a bit uneasy about our exchange with Ismael last night, about handing over a good deal of money and the keys to our rental car. The likelihood of it working out seemed kind of far-fetched. Wil was up early, as usual, and went for a walk and who does he run into but Ismael. Wil heart-on-his-sleeve Murray fesses up about our discomfort. Ismael reassures him. "On est pas des gamins". Okay, we thought, let's just trust in fate and see how it goes. We had breakfast in the garden, songbirds going for it, the poor screeching peacock getting chased down by our kids.

We drove up to the main drag for a banana-strawberry-orange smoothie. We watched the kids walking to school — the girls in headscarf and labcoats (designed to mask any attempt at sexiness). We watched pregnant women with husbands in tow go in and out of the obstetrical office next door. "The girls are so young!" Frances comments. The mosque and the souk, delivery men overloading their vans, donkeys pulling carts heavy with mint, or gravel, or sand. There were lots of women in full sahara gear, body size scarf covering practically every inch of skin.

We drove around Zagora and into the palmeraie, so green and lush in such contrast to the arid surroundings and stopped at a store for kleenex and treats. The place is probably 20 x10 feet, making it far and away the biggest store we've seen in Morocco.

We meet up with Ismael and are introduced to Hussein, our guide/driver. He is probably thirty and built like Wil, making him, by a long shot, one of the taller men we've met in Morocco. He's dressed in a dark djellaba with a pale green scarf tied around his head like a turban. We transfer our stuff to the Toyota Prado, a 4x4 small version of a Land Cruiser, hand over the keys to the Kangoo and head off with Hussein, Ismael promising to meet us with it tomorrow in Foum Zguid. We drive along past where we'd seen all the men hanging out on the road the day before. Hussein explains that it's a wedding — a three day affair in Zagora. The first day all the guests come to the bride's house for the actual ceremony and celebrations. The second day the bride, whose hands, feet and hair have been hennaed, is completely veiled and gets on a white camel for the ride to her husband's family home where she will now live. There is lots of tajine and couscous and harira. Three hundred people or more come. The whole community parties. Hussein went through all this five months ago. I asked if his wife and his mother get along. Yes, yes, he replies, smiling, amused. How did you meet your wife? I spotted her walking to the high school and knew she was the one. I choose not to ask about the age difference.

We hit the road. Stopping in Tamegroute for a look around a Koranic library built in the 16th century, one of only two in the country and now a place like Lourdes where the ill come to be healed. We also get the tour of the pottery collective. Tamegroute is the source of much of what we think of as Moroccan pottery — the tajines, the platters, the rough green pots. We were shown the whole process — the clay powder first being soaked in water in a big pit, the decorations, the wood-burning ovens, the gas ovens for the brighter colours. Small, snotty kids follow us around begging for a dirham. Hassan, our pottery guide, has instructed us not to cave — to contribute to the collective instead, which benefits the whole community. It's very hard to ignore them as they shift in front of you whichever way you turn. I'm kicking myself for not learning how to say sorry in arabic. We follow our guide through a series of passages with kasbah-like walls and then through the gift shop where we are steered toward the larger pieces. I try to take a picture of a pot and the memory card on my camera just stops, the camera telling me the card needs formatting. I thought myself quite brave for not breaking down and crying there in the shop. With my pathetic recall, my photos ARE my memories and there were so many of them from Marrakech, from our hike in the mountains... I hadn't even looked at them, conserving the battery and looking forward to savouring them once we got home. Back in the car, I sat in the front seat, barely able to contain my anguish. Hoping, as I turned it off and on. Hoping, as I removed and replaced the battery. Hoping, as I popped out the memory card over and over. Hoping! Hoping to no avail.

Not only to have lost all the photos from our trip, some of the most picturesque moments of my whole life, but facing the prospect of a once in a lifetime trip into the Sahara without my effin' camera!!!.. After sucking it up, I felt it only fair to tell Hussein what was up (aka, why the chick riding shotgun was losing her grip) as we entered the last village on our stop. He pulled a memory card out of his gps and I hoped again but it didn't work. If it had happened in Marrakech, I thought, I'd be able to pick another one up to salvage the rest of the trip but here, in this tiny string of concrete and mud buildings... Aargh! Suddenly Hussein pulls the car over to the side of the road and hops out, pointing to a tiny, dusty shop with the word Photographe painted on the pink exterior. I walk in with him thinking "Ya, right... and Hallelujah, they have a memory card that fits in my evil camera.

Soon after, we turn off the paved road between a few rocks onto the "piste", which is essentially a set of tire marks leading off into the void. The ground is pale packed soil dotted with greenery. The rule seems to be drive where you like — a million tracks like a crosshatch on the landscape. I chat with Hussein in french, asking him a million questions. He, like Mustafa and Majid, is Berber but of the Saharan variety. They speak what is meant to be the same dialect, Tamazight, but it bears little resemblance. Hussein's variety is guttural, sounding far more like arabic while Mustafa's was a little like Portuguese with lots of zuhzuhzuh. Hussein contradicts so much of what Mustafa said about Berber culture that I really begin to wonder who knows and who doesn't. Even the way they pronounce words that both dialects share differs so much. I suddenly think about asking a Montrealer and an Ontarian or Vancouverite about how to say something like milk or bag or bagel and understand.

The hard-packed soil eventually gives way to arrek (roll those rrrrs), loose softball-sized rocks that bounce the car and its queasy passengers in a million different directions. There are fewer tracks but the ruts are challenging for the shocks and the driver. Good thing Hussein knows where he's going because Wil, who normally has an excellent sense of direction, is lost. I, on the other hand, am always lost. After the rocks comes the feshfesh (a word I find so satisfying to say). I can only liken it to driving in deep snow in summer tires. The key, Hussein tells me is not to lose velocity. Keep moving or you dig yourself a sandy grave. We swish and swerve around, the steering wheel always in motion, the rear end fishtailing around shrubs and acacia trees.

In the distance on our right are the Jbel Bani mountains, which run along the southern edge of the Draa river valley. On our left is Algeria. We see wild dromedaries from Algeria (which Hussein tells us are darker than the Moroccan variety), wild donkeys, acacias (the parasols of the desert and the dromedary's favourite food) and little birds that flit alongside us.

A few dunes, gorgeous things in the midday sun, appear on our right, basically in the middle of nowhere and Hussein pulls the car up to a cluster of tents. He explains that we're stopping here for a quick lunch, pointing to one of the tents, and then driving on to Erg Chigaga which will take an hour or so. We take off our shoes and head for the dunes. The sand is gold and finer than sugar. Living sculptures. The kids have a blast sliding and jumping, letting off some steam after being cooped up for a couple of hours in the car. We watch a group of four people mounting dromedaries and heading off into the desert in fits of giggles. We head over to the tent — a thirty by thirty foot structure of wooden poles and camel hair. The outside is brown black. We step inside and it's as dark as night but our eyes adjust quickly. The floor is carpet upon carpet. The walls are also a mishmash of colourful carpets, more on the ceiling and the benches that line the walls. There are rough, wooden, round tables tucked into the corners. Henri chooses a corner and we all settle in, feeling like pashas. Soon comes the mint tea, the moroccan salad (chopped tomato, cucumber, peppers and olives) and the brochettes. Halfway through our meal the group on dromedaries joins us in the tent. A family of four from France — Mom and Dad and two grown girls. The girls are in short shorts and strapless bikini tops — a whole lot of skin for Morocco. It makes me feel uncomfortable — for them and also for our hosts. They tell us they're embarking on a four day dromedary trip through the desert with a guide. We say au revoir and head off toward Erg Chigaga. Once we're in the car I ask Hussein about their outfits and what he thought. "The other guide is not very happy, he said, He's going to ask them to wear something more appropriate for the ride." I wouldn't want to be on either side of that conversation.

Back on the piste toward the dunes. We see noone except for the occasional nomad tent. The distances are so vast and there is nothing. We pull into our bivouac, a circle of tents on a flat nestled between some dunes that are perhaps fifteen feet high. The tents are a patchwork of black camel hair, the doors are carpets hung over openings, kept closed to keep out the heat or the cold or the sand.

There is a dining tent and a cob structure for the bathrooms, a fire pit surrounded by sections of palm tree for stools. Hussein introduces us to Saïd, the caretaker, a small man with a huge smile who limps around, one of his feet turned inward so that he walks on the outside of his foot. He pulls out an endless supply carpets, laying them on top of the sand at the entrance to all the buildings. We dump our stuff in our tent and wander off into the dunes. We climb the first one see, something that looks glamorous in movies but is actually intensely awkward as it is a serious struggle to move forward and upward on the loose shifting sand without digging your hands in. Once we're over the first ridge we are all huffing and puffing and then downright breathless at the sight before us. A sea of motionless golden waves. Some of the dunes are the size we just climbed, others are mountains. The ridges snake off in every direction. Not a straight line to be found. The wind blows from one of two directions here and you can tell by the shape of the dunes. The side that gets the brunt of the wind is all tiny scalloped ridges — like a wave-combed beach. The lea side is just an accumulation of soft, fluffy sand — the sand that has been blown over the ridge and fallen where it will. Even the gentlest breeze sends a spray of grains over the ridge so that the dunes are ever being shaped and reshaped. Once over the ridge, we realize that the scalloped side is the one for glamorous walking, hard-packed by the incessant wind.

The kids jump and slide on the forgiving slopes, trying to turn on the snowboard they found leaning up agains the dining tent. Wil and I sit and watch, pinching ourselves. We can't believe we're here. As we're sitting there, we see a young turbaned man walking a line of five dromedaries toward us. The kids are giddy as we head down to meet him. The dromedaries sit down in a neat row and Assan, a young Berber from a village in the nearby mountains, introduces us to our mounts. We all jump on, settling ourselves on the thick blanket atop the donut-shaped saddle and hold on to the metal T in front of us. Sitting on a sitting dromedary is one thing. Sitting on the dromedary as it gets up is quite another! Unbending those five foot long legs only happens two at a time! The back ones go first lurching you forward toward the back of its neck, pretty sure that you're going to somersault over its head, then the front ones go and you're hanging on to the T for dear life. It only took a few steps to answer my question about why you only see tourists on dromedaries. The Moroccans are too smart.

Assan took us for a stroll in the dunes. Once you've settled into the rhythm of the pace you can almost ignore the physical discomfort and fear of falling and enjoy it. The kids found endless joy in the almost constant farting of Wil's dromedary. I found a little less funny their habit of swinging their tails as they pee, sending a fine spray of camel piss in every direction. Hussein had told us on the drive in when a pregnant dromedary is getting ready to calve, the herd will leaves her alone for the birth. When the calf is a week old, she will head off to rejoin them, finding the herd by picking up the trail of scent they leave behind.

The dromedary's feet are incredible. Their front feet practically double in breadth as they put them down, spreading their not-negligible weight on the sand to keep from sinking. I started watching Assan's footsteps alongside the dromedary's and was amazed to see that, despite the 800kilo difference, his footsteps displaced more sand than the dromedary's. We "parked" the dromedaries (a process which is even more of a carnival ride than getting on) and scrambled and scrabbled our way up the side of a big dune to watch the sunset. As we were getting near the peak, Assan called out to us. We'd forgotten our bottle of water. He sprinted up the side of the dune. Having cleverly first cleared the soft side lower down he pounded up the hard side and was waiting for the not-so-clever tourists when we finally managed to make it over the top.

We sat with him and watched the kids mess around. Conversation was limited to our ten words in Berber and his limited French vocabulary. But he did point out the two biggest dunes on the horizon, giving them names that now escape me. Henri had talked about heading over but Assan told us it takes a full day to walk there and get to the top. The distances are so misleading. Again, a thought for the people in the first caravans who actually made it across.

Although it is late in the day, the sun is still beating down hard. The wind has picked up, making it almost impossible to move without creating a spray of fine sand that gets in everyone's hair and nose. The scarf, again, makes so much sense. We watch the sun set in a nest of clouds but we're just so entirely gobsmacked to be here that I'm not sure a perfect sunset wouldn't have just been ridiculously over the top.

We get back on the dromedaries (lurch, lurch) and head back to the bivouac. We thank Assan and the girls thank their rides with greenery pulled from the nearest bush. Back in the circle of tents Saïd and Hussein have laid out a huge carpet scattered with cushions. In the middle is a round table with a white tablecloth. The temperature is dropping fast so we all dash into our tents for our down jackets. Back on the carpet, we watch the darkening sky. We're all on our backs pointing at the heavens. First the planets emerge, then our friend, Orion and the Dippers. None are where we expect them to be. Henri points out just how round the earth feels as the inky dome above us takes shape in sparkly wonder. Hussein magically appears with heavy fleece blankets to keep our legs warm. I am having a moment. One of those moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Lying here with my favourite people, all safe and warm and close in the friggin' SAHARA DESERT!!! In this moment I am the luckiest person on the planet.

After another marathon round of Henri's "Would you rather...?", Saïd turns on the light in the dining tent which signals it's time for dinner. We head inside and, yet again, CFL bulbs are again trying to spoil the mood. We turn them off, lighting a few more candles to compensate. All alone in a dining tent designed for dozens. Saïd brings us harira followed by a delicious tajine. Snaking underfoot and meowing loudly is a tiny ginger cat. It's very hard to eat a meal outdoors in Morocco without being accosted by at least one cat. They start meowing the moment you sit down (just in case you hadn't noticed them) and continue throughout the meal, shifting positions constantly in order to keep you interested. It can be comical or infuriating depending on whether you choose to engage. We can't quite believe that one has found us here! We feast and laugh and emerge to a spectacular night sky. We find our places on the carpet and lie down to take it all in. Just when it couldn't get any better, the almost full moon makes an appearance on the horizon.

The bed was (surprise, surprise) as gritty as a beach blanket but the sheets were crisp and cool. Up a couple of times to go pee, walking across the compound to the bathroom, a cob building still giving off the intense heat of the day despite the frigid temperature outside. The moon was high, the shadows as crisp as full noon, the blue of the sky deep and the sand gone ochre. The stillness is striking. Despite the fact that we live in the middle of nowhere I have never, ever heard/felt silence like this. In the daylight there was nothing but wind and birdsong. At night, just the occasional howl of the jackals in the nearby mountains. The quiet settles on you like a heavy blanket. Comforting and, to me, a little unsettling. I stood out in the opening, eyes pointed at the sky and absorbed the peace of the sahara. I just can't believe we're really here.


Mom said...

There is nothing like the feeling of contentment when your husband and kids are close at hand, safe and, most importantly, WITH YOU. I can summon that sensation from my vast repertory of memories and it feels good. Thanks for evoking it.

peter said...

Well said Mom