Three Days to the Sahara

In these three days I became a drug smuggler, bought a magic carpet, got sexually harassed by a teenage boy in “paradise”, met Jacob Black(‘s lookalike), got my credit card compromised, drank bootlegged wine while riding a camel and accidentally went sock foot in a squatter. Three freaking days. 

Disclaimer: this story contains talk of illegal activity and makes light fun of sexual harassment. Please don't read on if that will offend you and/or if you are my mom. Not jk. 

We left at the crack of dawn from our hostel in Marrakesh. The driver collected us at the door and led us through the alley and down the street onto the edge of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. We joined a couple of others and waited as the driver went to rally the rest of our van-load.

In total there were 14 of us that herded into the van and set off into the sunrise. My travel partner, Syd, and I were the only two Canadians. There were multiple Australians, Kiwis and Brits, two girls from Singapore who were afraid of cats, a Polish American who was for sure a sociopath, a couple of German girls who would literally do anything you told them to, a French girl who bought the djellaba right off our guide’s back and two mysterious ladies who were from somewhere in Asia. They spoke no English and none of us could communicate with them. The most interaction we had was when they would ask for pictures with the guys in the group and then pinch their bums as the camera snapped the photo. That made them laugh, and the boys a little uncomfortable.

The first stretch of the drive was long, but luckily we stopped often to stretch our legs. The driver stopped at little tourist stands along that sold souvenirs and drinks and usually had bathrooms. Different vans like ours stopped at different stands, so we figured they either had contracts with the people who owned the stands or they were somehow related. Our driver seemed to have a lot of “relatives”. We stopped often. It was good for those in the group *cough, Syd, cough* who drank 3 litres of water an hour and needed to pee a lot, but it definitely tacked a few hours onto the trip.

Somewhere in that first half of the first day, we pulled over and the driver got out and talked to a man who was waiting on the side of the road. They talked for less than a minute, and then the driver loaded a colourful ottoman into the van beside us. He said nothing and jumped back into his seat and took off. This mysterious ottoman stayed with us all the way to the desert camp. Theories were thrown out between us, and we came to the conclusion that it was for sure full of drugs and he was smuggling them into the desert. It was a perfect plan, really. If he got caught by police, he could just blame one of us tourists. Genius.

There are no photos of this ottoman (for legal purposes).

We stopped at many view points, one of the most memorable being at the top of one of the mountains in the High Atlas mountain range. The roads up and down the mountains winded sharply, and a few of the girls got a bit car sick *cough, Syd, cough*, but the view was worth it. Especially since I wasn't the one that was sick. 

We stopped at a place called Aït Benhaddou, which from where we parked across the small river looked a lot like a huge sandcastle. Once we got closer, I realized that it was, in fact, a huge sandcastle. One that people lived in, to this day and probably for hundreds of years before.

We climbed the sandcastle and explored all the little alleyways. To be honest I couldn’t tell if people actually lived in the houses, or if they were there just for show for the tourists, but it was cool none the less. One room had a wall of photos from all the different movies that had been shot there. Basically all your typical Gladiator-style movies, including, duh, Gladiator. Our guide that day was actually “not a tour guide” but a “horse trainer” and he just “guided part-time for extra money”. His words. He trained horses for Gladiator, Prince of Persia and most of the other movies. There’s a photo on the wall of a sceenshot from Gladiator, and he’s standing beside Russell Crowe. He was so proud to point himself out. It was adorable.

We had lunch on the other side of the river in the new town. It was the first of MANY a meal of soup, tajine, cous cous, bread, and oranges and bananas for “dessert”. Fruit is not dessert. The Moroccans don’t get that. The tajine and cous cous were always tasty though.

Later that day we stopped in a small village on the side of a mountain. Our driver dropped us off with our tour guide for that portion, who informed us of our itinerary. We would first take a walk through a garden, see paradise, then visit a carpet-makers house, then have lunch, then get back in the van and head off. We were confused about the “seeing paradise” part. We kept our eye out for this “paradise” but it was hard to tell if there was a specific “paradise” portion, or if all of it was “paradise” or if just the garden was “paradise”. 

On the garden tour we had to walk single-file on a small path that lead through the wet fields. I was at the back of the line, walking slowly, soaking it all in, when out of nowhere a medium sized boy appeared beside me.

“Hi”, he said.

“Hi”, I said.

He started playing around with a piece of dry grass and before I knew it he'd whipped it into the shape of a camel and handed it to me with a proud look on his face.

“Cool, thanks”.

“It’s necklace” he said, and took the camel back from my hand, leaned in real close and tied it around my neck.

“Oh. Cool. Thanks.” I said.

“You have pretty hair” he whispered into my ear.

“Oh... Thanks” He stroked it and smiled.

Things were getting weird.

“Can we have a picture?”

“Excuse me?” He whipped out a smart phone, put his arm around me and snapped a pic. Perfect.

Because of all this, we had fallen behind from the group and I was now alone in “paradise” garden with a teenage boy who was giving off a very rapey vibe.

“Well, thanks” I said awkwardly and ran to catch up with the group. The boy was right on my tail, but when we caught up with the group, he turned his attention to Sam, an Aussie guy in our group. Sam had basically the same interaction I had, except without the hair petting and the selfie. The look on Sam’s face when the boy leaned real close to tie his necklace was priceless.

Then their conversation went like this:

Boy – “Can I have some money?”

Sam – “What? No. Why?”

Boy – “Because I want some money.”

Sam sped up his walking. The boy turned his attention back to me.

Boy- “Can I have a kiss?”

Me- “No”

Boy- “Can I have some money?”

Me- “No”

Our garden tour ended then and the boy disappeared into paradise to breathe hot breath into the ear of the next tourist, and we continued on to the carpet-maker’s house. I would like to tell you the garden was beautiful but to be honest, with all the teenage boy commotion I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. 

On the outside the carpet maker’s house looked more or less like any other Berber style desert house, but once you entered it had a very exotic, very cozy, “carpet room”. Literally the room was made out of carpets. Floor, carpets. Walls, carpets. Furniture, carpets. Roof, stone…and carpets. This could be a staple room in Berber desert houses, I wouldn't know as this is the only one I entered. It might be like their version of a tv room or a study. I like that. I'm going to pretend that's how it is. 

We had to take off our shoes before entering, on account of being inside a room of very expensive, very delicate carpets. Syd of course had to pee once we got inside, and I, being a good friend, went with her because I also had to pee. We were given directions to the toilet. It turned out to be across the street in a different house. We probably should have put on our shoes, but we’re lazy so we didn’t. We crossed the street and entered the toilet. It was a squatter. Again, we probably should have put on our shoes….but we didn’t.

Back in the carpet room, we had a lesson on how the carpets were made and the different types, all while being assured by the carpet maker that he would in no way pressure us or expect us to buy any carpets. I believed him.

When the tour was over, we all lined up to put our shoes back on and leave. Our shoes were all outside the carpet room, inside of another small room, and I got stuck at the back of the line (how does this keep happening to me?), inside of the carpet room. The carpet man made eye contact. He smelled weakness on me.

“You like the carpets?”

“Yes they’re very pretty.”

“How much would you pay for this carpet?”

“I don’t want to buy a carpet, thank you.”

“No no no. I don’t pressure. Just tell me, how many Euros would you pay for this carpet?”

“I don’t have any Euros.”

“Just tell me how many.”

“I don’t know. Maybe 30.”

“30. Good.”

*says something in Berber to his wife and she immediately begins cutting the carpet for sale and wrapping it*

 “No! I don’t want a carpet. I don’t have any money with me.”

“No problem. We have credit.”

That is how I ended up buying a not-so-magic carpet in the desert with my credit card (which was later compromised, not saying it’s because of this, just saying. It’s definitely because of this).

I carried that god damn carpet around in my backpack for 3 more months of travelling. There was no way I was leaving it behind after I paid 30 euro and lost a credit card.

After our pleasant afternoon in the Berber village, we loaded back up on the bus.

Our driver dropped us off for a very short break in Ourzazate. It was just enough time for us all to wonder if he was coming back, or if he actually just took the drugs and left us there.

Our final destination of the day was a hotel in the Dades Gorge. It was gorge-ous. Haha. Haha…

Our hotel looked like something out of an episode of Game of Thrones. It was medieval looking right down to the candle light, the long, ominous hallways and the dining hall with huge long tables and wooden cutlery. I don't actually watch Game of Thrones but I picture it's a lot of old men dressed in fur shawls hanging out with their swords and wenches in buildings like this.

We had, you guessed it, soup, tajine, cous cous, bread and “dessert”. On the plus side, the other group of people staying in the hotel was some sort of convoy of male members of a Jewish family and one of them looked exactly like Jacob Black from Twilight. Dead ringer. Not joking. It was awesome.

We had a very cold few hours of sleep and woke early to get back on the road. We took a small tour of the Dades Gorge, and then knocked out our long last stretch of driving to Merzouga, only stopping for about 16 toilet and souvenir breaks.

At last we were in the desert. I mean technically we had been in the desert for hours, if not days already, but this was the real desert. The one you see on travel channels. Sandy dunes. Salty camels. A palm tree or two. Men dressed in lots of layers.

We boarded our camels and set out on our way. Luckily the Polish guy had found some back alley in the gorge to buy a case of wine, so we had plenty of drink to pass back and forth while riding into the sunset.

The drink helped the pain. As glamorous as Instagram makes camel riding look, it is not. It does not feel good to have your vageen banged against a hard saddle over and over again for two hours. And if you’re anything like me, there was no relief on the back step because I have no padding back there to cushion the blow, so it hurt just as much. This was a situation in life where having a booty would have really been an asset...haha…haha.

After a beautiful sunset they finally led us to our camp, which for all we know could have been two sand dunes over and they could have just been leading us around in circles for two hours. Everything really does look the same to the uneducated eye out there.

We had a delicious meal of, yes, soup, tajine, cous cous, bread and “dessert”. Actually, I have to be honest, the soup was disgusting. Awful. It tasted like hot water with a very obscure grain mixed in for texture, which is a shame because it looked so appetizing. But the rest of the meal was great. Promise. Thank you Berber desert guides.

The guides not only walked our camels, made us dinner and took never ending pictures for the Singapore girls, but they also entertained us. They built a huge bonfire and played some bongo drums and told us riddles and let us try on their turbans. It was a great night. 

To get real though, the Sahara desert is amazing. The stars. The dunes. The camel poop and sock feet combo. I loved it all. Go there. Except if you go there, take more clothes than I did to sleep in. It’s chilly. Really fucking chilly. Actually the coldest night I’ve ever had in my life. It’s great though. I loved it.

The next day we woke up before sunrise so we could be on the camels when the sun came up over the dunes. It was pretty magical. I barely even minded having both my front and back bum being smashed to pieces. 

Back in Merzouga we had some breakfast, Syd finally got to have her daily poop, and then we boarded the van for the long drive back to Marrakesh, suspiciously without the ottoman we had picked up at the start of our journey.

We made a pretty cool bond with some of the people in our van. How can you not when you have that many moments together? We went into the desert together. We became drug smugglers together. We met Jacob Black together. It was one of those amazingly memorable travel times. I don’t know if I would ever do the same trip again, but I’m so so glad I did it.