Nov 9, 2006

Wandering in the Desert

In the US, the Bible belt where the fundamentalist Christians reside tend to be more rural farmland. Likewise, in Morocco, the cosmopolitan cities of Casablanca and Fes appear much more liberal than less developed areas, if judged only by women's fashions.

The next morning, we were taken back to Rissani to see the souk, or local market. While we had already been through the medinas (old city areas) of Casablanca and Fes, we were still surprised to see sellers hawking fresh fruits and vegetables to women, almost all in hajib, and the vast majority in all black. Donkey and human drawn carts routinely wound their way through the crowded streets.

Beyond the stalls was an open area with numerous donkeys braying, roped to posts, with the occasional horse thrown in for good measure. The equivalent of a used car lot, old men in julabas (traditional cloak) bargained, apparently angrily, over their beasts of burden. In the corner two men reshoed a horse as the owner watched nearby.
Beyond were additional stalls, filled with cows, sheep and goats. This was not your average Californian farmers market. After were other markets, for clothing, woodworking, and dates, given that it was just nearing the end of the date harvest.
After the souk we were taken to see two casbahs nearby. A casbah is a walled city or fortress, usually accessible by two or more gates and made of mud and straw. The first we visited served as a town. Houses are all attached to one another, and two stories (plus the roof). The streets, mostly smelling of animal filth, were occasionally tunnels under some architecture of the casbah. Dark sections were plentiful, but we saw that the walls were wired for flourescent light for nighttime.
The dirt paths might better be described as gutters, with the two sides raised and a wide trench in the middle for clearing rainwater. This certainly wouldn't be a pleasant place in a rainstorm. Driss brought us to a Berber woman's home in the casbah. Although she looked far better off than the nomads living in tents, the relative poverty of the place was still apparent from the darkness, the smell, and the flies. On her roof was a satellite dish; this is still seen as a luxury item in North America, but in Europe, there's a good quantity of free satellite programming, so the dish is pretty much the equivalent of a TV antenna and fills the skyline of any Moroccan city.
Given the religious atmosphere, it would seem to me that either TV broadcasts or Internet access might be the only exposure to the gospel that people might have here.

As we left, Jason tipped the lady 20 drms, and she grabbed onto him, repeating something in Berber. From her tone it sounded like she wanted more, but our guide said it was actually profuse gratitude (for about $2.50).

The next stop was another casbah nearby, this one a crumbling 300 year old palace. The outer walls still stood, as well as some of the rooms with their lofty decorated ceilings surrounding sunny, paved, courtyards and gardens. An old army official maintained the harem quarters (since the palace is still property of the king), and had invited musicians and guests for an afternoon of entertainment when we toured the palace.
We had luch back in Erfoud, at a nondescript restaurant in the nouvelle ville. I just had a salad in hopes that my oncoming stomach troubles would work themselves out (they persisted). On the way back to the hotel, Driss dropped us by a "workshop" where they worked a local marble that is filled with fossilized shells. The pieces would actually make great countertops or sinks in a fancy home, but that's not for us.
Back at the hotel, there was a rugged Land Rover waiting for us. Within a half hour, we were out on a 4x4 track in the desert, a flat and rocky barren plain that stretched into a horizon hazy with dust. There were little spots of weeds here and there, but nothing close to the dry shrubs that are typical of the deserts in California. Along the dirt path in this wilderness, there were one or two nomad tents, with tables of rocks and trinkets, manned by children and aimed at tourists.
It was about an hours drive into the Sahara (pronounced exotically as Za-ha-ra, with well enunciated syllables and a rolling R) where we were able to see the golden red hues of the Erg Chebbai rising in the haze of the horizon. It reminded me of the dunes in Death Valley, but instead of seeing the patch of dunes in California, it was a wide, expansive stretch. We had arrived in Merzouga, but from where we were there wasn't much of a town to be seen, just a few, well spaced casbah hotels.
We pulled into the Auberge Dunes D'Or, which was going under massive renovations as a pool was being put into one of the courtyards. We checked in and pulled out our toilletries and long sleeved clothes as we left out bags in the hotel and jumped onto two camels lead by two Berber teenagers on foot.

They led us about an hour into the desert. A camel ride isn't exactly the most comfortable method of travel, with bumps in the ride that tending to shift you into the wrong position, so that the camels hump or bumps in the saddle poke at the wrong places with each step. I was constantly considering whether to get off and walk. It might have been a good idea.
Photographs cannot describe the vastness of the dunes, with no point of reference, I was mostly able to get pictures of piles of sand, but I'll assure readers that the piles were very big, and grand, and stretched quite far. The Erg in Morocco is not as big as ones that cover much of Algeria or Tunisia, and only takes a few hours of trekking to reach from one end to the other. Inside though, you certainly feel the vastness around you as you cannot see an end to the sand.

As the sun had set, we made our way around a huge sand dune. As we came around the far side, we saw a patch of tiny palm trees and tents, an oasis used by the hotels. Each hotel had a camp of three or four Berber style tents. Although it feels sufficiently remote, its not quite isolated. Voices and laughter can be heard from nearby camps, and within a camp, tents are side by side. There is definitely no electricity or running water. There is a shallow well from which water can be scooped out from, and I never discovered whether bathroom facilities were available since we didn't wander to all the other camps. It seemed like all the camps were serviced by a couple of Berber families, and the kids that did all the cooking often ran between the various camps.
We happened to be the only two people in our camp, and as we arrived, some Berber kids pulled out a large rug, two mattresses, and a small table and set it up in the courtyard formed by the tents in the light of the full rising moon. It brought a new meaning to the phrase "prepared a table".

As the kids started cooking something up on a gas stove in one of the tents that served as a kitchen (with walls of straw mats!?) , Jason and I started hiking up the giant sand hill, 150m in height. With numerous stops and laboured breathing, we eventually made it up to the top. From that virtual mountain we saw the sea of dunes spread beneath us, a landscape of lines and shadows in the moonlight. The kerosene lanterns of the camps shone below as the quiet and cool desert wind blew constantly from the east.
After some failed photos in the dark, and a moment to enjoy the peacefulness, we ran, screaming down the steep slopes of the dunes. We washed our hands in the water of the oasis, and returned to hot chicken tagine and bread on the table, with carrots, onions and potatoes. The hearty meal was perfect after the hike, and luckily for me, no immediate adverse reactions kicked in.
Immediately after dinner, we were brought thick blankets and asked if we prefered to sleep outside or in the tents. We decided on outside. The clouds and the bright moon excluded all but the brightest few stars. As the kids took the dishes and the table and retired somewhere, so we also settled into the mattress that were previously our seats, under the shelter of the sky.

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