Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Very sad to leave our deluxe, country compound. To get to Zagora, our stepping stone to the desert, we first must cross the Sahgro, another chain of mountains, round topped scrub that pale in comparison after the High Atlas but an impressive obstacle all the same. Thinking about the poor caravans that braved fifty or more days in the desert only to find this set of mountains and the even more forbidding Atlas Mountains beyond before Marrakech. Far braver souls than me!

The "arabes noirs", the Touareg Berbers, that Mustafa talked about are here. A broader range of skin tones than anywhere else we've been. It actually starts feeling like Africa. That, combined with the wild west feel of the dusty, tiny villages really give the area a frontier-like feel. The older women are dressed almost exclusively in black flowing robes, some with colourful edging or bangled fringe. Far more women are in niqabs. Many of the men are in white djellabas and white kufis. Not a lot of smiles and waves for the whiteys in the Kangoo. The occasional hand gesture we do see is someone trying to flag us down for a lift. Like our trips through Mexico, we seem to have an uncanny knack for choosing vehicles that look just like the local public transport.

We pass vans packed with tourists on day trips from Marrakech. We'd seen them early mornings in Marrakech's Jama el Fna square, looking sleepy and a little lost, waiting to be assigned a seat in one of five vans going to the Erg Chebbi dunes. A six or seven hour drive through some of the most nauseating mountain passes, only to turn around and do it again the following day. We were pretty happy in our little Kangoo.

Through a pass in the Sahgro, we stop for a look at the view, a breath of fresh air to recover from the winding roads and are approached by a man selling dates in tiny little baskets for 10 dirham ($1.30). He is without a vehicle, all alone up here with no company, no shade. Like so many other times this week, we look around at the remote location and wonder how the hell he got here and how he's getting back at the end of the day. Life is not easy for so many Moroccans.

We finally emerge from the hills and drive through some small villages. We round a corner and find a long line of bare feet and bums facing us from the pavement. We were too polite to slow down and gawk but we wondered about why these guys were worshipping outside, something we hadn't seen anywhere else. Around another corner and there was a circle of men in white sitting on low stools around a big platter, all dipping spoons into the communal dish of couscous. It suddenly dawned on me that it was Friday, the Islamic Sunday — day of congregational prayer and couscous lunch. As a muslim man, if you miss more than three fridays of prayer among your brethren you are straying from the path.

We are driving through the valley of the Draa river, Morocco's longest at over a thousand kilometres long. All along its shores are date palms, olive & orange trees, a swath of green in this pretty but washed out earth-tone landscape. We get stopped at one of the very regular gendarmerie road blocks. As tourists we generally get a polite bonjour and a "move along" hand gesture. We stop to chat to the uniformed officer — the gendarmes of Morocco are without a doubt the most strapping lads in the country. These are not the small, Berber mountain folk we've seen. We ask him about where to eat and he points across the road. Good tajine, he says.

The place isn't exactly welcoming. Even my smiliest Salaam is met with a polite nod or blank stares from the men on the hot, dusty terrace. We ask the owner if we can have lunch. He whisks us past the grumpy men around the side of the building and opens a big metal gate. Like opening the doors to paradise, the other side is a lush, flowering garden, bougainvillea, palm trees, a shady oasis atwitter with songbirds. He dusts off a table and offers us a tajine. The kids are less than excited about the prospect of another one, but when the basket of bread and four little cone-shaped bubbling pots come to the table a few minutes later, everyone digs in. We're coming to realize that tajine is moroccan fast food. Along the main drag of every town at mealtime is a line of little clay stoves/stands filled with charcoal with a tajine perched on top — single servings or big family size meals that have been simmering away all morning. When you order one up, they drain off a little of the liquid in the bottom, making it easier to eat with your hands, bring it to your table on a round woven trivet, remove the top and voila! This one was chicken — legs and thighs under long slices of carrot, courgette, potato, peppers, turnip — and particularly yummy. It can be a bit complicated in Morocco — forgetting to ask the price before you eat. There can be an alarming difference between the local price and the tourist price and it's generally a good idea to figure out where you fit in before you're getting ready to pay. We've seen more than one heated exchange between restaurateur and irritated tourist diner. In this case, lunch for five cost us an unbelievable twelve bucks.

We stop in at a museum in a kasbah on the road. The caretaker, a lovely man in brown djellaba and kufi, follows us around, clarifying and chatting. "The québécois are the berbers of Canada," he says, after finding out where we were from. It was a fascinating place — as much for the building as for the displays which were almost comically dusty. The building was ochre cob, walls more than a foot thick, illuminated only by shafts of sunlight coming through openings in the roof. The walls a deep brown, the floors are packed dirt, the second and third floor have a distinctive and disconcerting bounce to them. The doorways are designed for someone my height, whether to accommodate the smaller people of the day or to keep the cool air in I'm not sure. Tools, pots, doors, hinges, birthing room, costumes of the three main tribes of the Sahara and details of their wedding rituals. One information panel told us that after the wedding ceremony the bride rode a mule to her husband's home, circling the tent three times. If the mule stopped before the third round it meant the girl wasn't a virgin and the wedding was annuled. "What if the mule is just tired?" Frances asks. I have visions of desperate fathers devising barbs to plant under the saddle to ensure the mule doesn't decide to take an untimely break.

We make it to Zagora — almost instantly accosted by salesmen of every description. We find the place we'd like to stay and when we're checking in the hotel owner asks us about heading into the desert. We tell him we've already booked a tour. He is not at all happy, suggesting that we're getting ripped off by some fly-by-night enterprise. We tell him the name of the company (which, as it turns out, is less than a block from his hotel) but he pretends never to have heard of them and points to all the licenses on the wall and tells us he's sure the company we've paid doesn't have them. Not exactly a confidence-building exchange.

The room is almost comical, a corridor with five identical, single beds in a row. We wander toward the centre of town, thinking it might be a good idea to check in with the company before we leave tomorrow (partly to reassure ourselves after the hotel owner's outburst). The office (I've seen bigger closets) is being "manned" by an eleven-year-old girl who writes a phone number down in her school exercise book for us. Hmmmm... We head up to the main drag along our semi-paved road. On the slope by sidewalk on our left is a clutch of men sitting on the ground facing across the road. They are the smiliest bunch of men we've seen in ages. We get a full round of Bonjours/Salaaam alaykums. If I had any arabic or berber, I'd ask what was up but I'm left, yet again, with a long list of unanswered questions. The main drag (you guessed it, Mohammed V) is a wide, dusty boulevard. One side is lined with cafés and restaurants or Snacks (Moroccan cantines), the other is taken up by the massive mosque with its towering minaret and the souk. Crossing the street is a lot like an obstacle course. First past the delivery trucks and students cycling to and from school, then dodge the scooters, mopeds and donkey carts, then through the faster motorcycles, cars and grands taxis. Stop in the middle of the road to reassess speeds and repeat the process in reverse. There are a few tourists wandering around but no kids. Ours provide an excellent buffer. With them leading the way, no one pays us any mind when it's our turn to walk by. We just get to watch them gape. The awkward stares quickly turn to smiles with a salaam alaykum. Teenagers are especially fascinated. Watching the local girls, in headscarves and white lab coats, watch Alice, checking her out from top to bottom and back again is seriously entertaining. She and Henri give each other piggy back rides up and down the sidewalk and I'm not sure what the local kids make of it. I only know they are being watched. There is so little public physical contact between the sexes here. A surprising amount of hand-holding and close touching between men but none between men and women and next to zero contact between teens. It oculdn't be more different than our time in Mexico where every public space is essentially a place for teenagers to neck passionately. We walk behind the mosque, sneaking a peek at the massive carpeted space, to the grand taxi stand behind and watch the sun set on the pink desert.

We stop at a little shop to buy scarves for our Saharan adventure. Apparently they are handy if the wind picks up. The salesman is a young, little guy dressed in turban and traditional gear. His eyes are blacked with kohl and he is totally loaded. He reeks of cigarettes and booze (double no-no in Morocco). Wil and the kids are shopping so I hang back but he keeps getting very close to me —"dans ma bulle", as they say. Grabbing my hand and trying to pull me into the store. Just a look. Just look. He squeezes my hand uncomfortably. Yanking me about. I try to be polite. I try being impolite but the guy is just not getting my message. I say outright, you're making me very, very uncomfortable but he's just out of it. Frances tries to save me but I have to wait for Wil to come into the store to extract me. The guy freaked me out.

We turn the corner onto the street where the hotel is and a teeny white Renault 4 pulls up beside us. Out pops a carbon copy of Younes — his little brother, Ismael. Pale green turban, broad lovely face. All smiles and chest patting. I'm nursing a damaged calf muscle so we all pile into his car (holding the back doors closed from the inside because we don't quite fit) for a lift to the office. We talk over the plan for tomorrow. We talk to him about our next stop after the desert, Foum Zguid, and on to the coast. If we have to come back to Zagora it will mean backtracking on the same road (something we are generally loathe to do) and a whole lot of driving. There is a piste that continues through the desert, he offers. You can go through Lac Iriki, see the rest of the desert and I will come and meet you in Foum Zguid with your rental car. It sounds perfect. Except that we're going off into the Sahara with a perfect stranger. And asking another perfect stranger to drive our rental car (which I'm pretty sure is not in the rental contract) to a distant town to meet us ... in the middle of nowhere. He says it's a service he provides all the time. After our encounter with the hotel guy and then the scarf salesman, we officially have the heeby-jeebies about Zagora and we're spooked. The potential for badness is palpable. Fear is such a toxic emotion — once you get a sniff of it it can really poison the most genuine of intents. We say yes but our hearts are saying no. We really want to trust Ismael.

He suggests a restaurant for dinner called le Dromadaire Gourmand and we say a demain. We head over to the resto. It's Deadsville. The atmosphere of the whole country (and this restaurant in particular) has suffered immeasurably at the hands of bloody CFL lightbulbs. Yes, they consume less electricity but nothing kills an ambiance quite like the pallor and chill of their glow. Despite the lighting, we are served by a charming old restaurateur. The older generation definitely felt the brunt of the French occupation. They speak perfect, charming french. We are served a Tajine Marriage — beef, prunes, almonds and walnuts in a salty/sweet juicy, finger-licking (only the right hand!) delight. We make the mistake of thanking the owner in Berber. So many of our exchanges have been with Berber folk recently that it comes out quite thoughtlessly. Non! he scolded us. En arabe, on dit Shokran! Oops...

We head back to our dormitory through mopeds, galloping donkeys, men in white, howling dogs and, once in our room, birdsong.

Tomorrow the Sahara!!

1 comment:

Caroline said...

Waiting with baited breath to hear how it went with Ismael!