Published: April 6th 2010April 6th 2010
in front of the Meski Bazar, waiting for tourists
Moroccan Sahara days sit at a perfect 33 degrees Celsius with barely a cloud in the sky, and the nights are cool with thousands of stars visible above. The small towns of Zagora and M’Hamid are the last towns on the southbound road in eastern Morocco and are heavily marketed to tourists as the “gateways to the Sahara”, but thankfully tourism has only had the effect of opening a few colorful souvenir shops, and so you don’t have to go far to see that the traditional Berber lifestyle still dominates. Spending an afternoon trekking south towards the Algerian border on camels belonging to a friend of Aziz quickly explained how easy it is to get lost in the desert; orientation is nearly impossible because of the lack of any type of trail or notable landmarks (unless you can read the stars), and apart from the luck of coming across a nomadic family you are on your own - even nomadic families necessarily travel with goats and other animals who have a sixth sense that takes them to water.
After three nights in Zagora, including one atop a terrace staring at the stars and listening to the sounds of the very
I got one rhythm down while there but its going to take a lotttt of practice
active oasis, it was back north to what was supposed to be one night in Ouarzazete before continuing on directly to the Western Sahara and Mauritania. Turned out that even after nine days in the little Moroccan Hollywood it was very difficult to feel okay about leaving. Part of the allure was the scenic contrast of a dusty desert town set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas mountains, part was the 25 km walks to nearby casbahs and the quality kung-fu/muay thai classes I got invitations to; but what really kept me there were the people I met and how clear it was from our first conversation that not only were they in the highest class of genuine and hospitable people, but they had volumes to teach on all aspects of life and human interaction. Between shared tagines, African drumming, plenty of shisha, and trying to convince tourists to stop at the Meski Bazar, Omar, Redouin, Hisham and Abdelghani (who I couchsurfed with) turned Abdel’s “Africa Room” into a classroom on life lessons.
Out of the many topics we discussed, the one that came up most frequently, probably because it is the sturdy central pillar of their lives,
sitting in his shop
was love within a family. Here love is based primarily on respect, and that lustful connection that Europeans look for is either not known to the people or seems feeble to them. Many marriages are decided by the parents, but what got me was that the people I spoke with, married or not, all had the mindset of complete dedication to their future spouse, and the thought of putting anything, including your own dreams/goals, in front of that person is ludicrous. The idea of arranged marriages is hard to understand in a Western world, but here where people come from strong families and are raised with the highest level of respect and love for their parents, it seems much more natural for their goal in life to be starting the same kind of family. It is not so much who you marry, as long as they come from a good family and will therefore have the same high standard of values and level of respect. A common judgment of whether someone is a good person or not is whether they always bring food or a gift home to the family when they visit; good people can only be genuinely happy
Biggest film studio in the world, and many locals have worked on set; films include Gladiator, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, Lawerence of Arabia. My picture went on the wall underneath Matt Damon and Josh Hartnett and next to Julia Roberts lol
if they have helped their family and shown appreciation. The high level of hospitality I experienced all over Morocco can also be attributed to family. Omar told me when he was young he asked his mother why the first thing she did every morning was to open their front door; her answer was so that everyone knows they are welcome. The idea of opening the door to yourself and your life, in the sense of being hospitable and genuinely caring for other people, is the central theme that sums up everything I have experienced in the non-Westernized parts of Morocco, and whether it can be attributed to Islam or something else, the result is a beautiful society that makes traveling a pleasure.
Would have loved to have stayed and learned more, but the combination of the clock ticking on my Mauritania visa and the desire to get to a second African country meant saying goodbyes and heading out for four days of hitching across half the Sahara. The road was long but wonderful, with vast expanses of flat desert changing from rocky yellow to brilliant white to an occasional expanse of red, all the while getting breaks from the
flatness with giant dunes, plateaus, or herds of camel in the distance. Hitching can take a little longer here, partly because of the huge distances between any sort of town (you know you’re crossing the Sahara when the only distance signs on the road are for cities two countries /2500 km away), and partly because some drivers ask for money or seem a touch to eager for a female passenger. But patience always pays off, and everyone I’ve traveled with have been great, plus most offer food, places to stay (still have never had to get myself a hotel), and good travel information. In southern Western Sahara the reminders of the Algerian war become apparent, with little Innukshuk type rock piles warning for active landmines on either side of the road, and police stops every one or two hundred kilometers. The police at both the checkpoints and the Mauritanian border were great, a few even gave gifts or offered tea or lunch.
We crossed out of Morocco, over the unpaved 4 km no-mans land, and into Mauritania in only about 90 minutes, apparently record time for an African border. One last ride took me here to Nouadibou, the economic
Abdel and I
best drummer in Oarzazete, and one of the smartest people Ive met.
capital of one of the poorest countries in the world. Stayed for two nights with a friend of someone I met hitching, and am now couchsurfing with Marie, a French expat who has been working here for about a year, and has great insight into life in a country known for Islamic Law, a mix of Arab and Black African nationalities, and a whole lot of sand. She has reassured me about traveling in the region, particularly about the “terrorist” attacks that have happened recently, when a few groups of Europeans were kidnapped/killed. So today I will be jumping on (literally) the iron ore train for the slow 24 hour trip inside an open bin in the longest train in the world and heading directly east to the iron mines in Zuerat. Some more good quality time with vast open land, hopefully to the true Saharan seas of sand dunes, and maybe a few glasses of tea in a Tuareg tent.
There are more photos below