The Dunes of Morocco

The Dunes of Morocco

I think it is safe to say that the dunes of Morocco are one of those things that don’t take much to understand.  What I mean by this is that you can say “Great Wall of China” or “Egyptian Pyramids” or “Mount Everest” or “Cage diving with Great White sharks” to your friends and they will be able to instantly picture it, and then imagine how cool the experience must have been.  Riding a camel across the Sahara desert, through 300 foot sand dunes, is easy to appreciate.  As with many of these experiences, there is much sacrifice required to get to the location.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be special.

Spoiler alert: This experience is easily HIGH up in the top ten things I’ve ever done.

But first there is a contrast to be drawn.  Though Morocco is great and interesting and beautiful, it’s also very taxing.  This country is filled with 95% amazing people and 5% swindlers.  Unfortunately, the bad 5% tend to swarm you like flies.  The difference between Morocco and Europe is that you can’t idle in Morocco.  You can’t just stroll without a purpose.  You have to have your guard up the whole time and you have to have a purpose at all times.

For instance, if you are walking to somewhere.  You must keep a brisk pace and firm direction.  If the bad 5% see you appearing to be lost, they will move in.  You can’t really just sit in a park or a square, they will move in.  And you can’t make yourself approachable.  If you follow these rules, then you will be fine.  But it isn’t always easy to do this.  For instance, when you get off of a bus, fully loaded with your backpack, and have no idea which way to go to get to a hostel.  The best solution that I found was to ask someone who is anchored for directions.  Someone who is currently holding a position at a retail store, or better yet, a security guard or police man.  If you ask one of the many men loitering on the corner, you will instantly acquire a personal guide.  This personal guide will take you directly to his friend’s place and demand money for his trouble.  It will go something like this “Do you know where crystal desert hostel is?” and he will say “Of course.  Let me walk you there.”  Then the man will walk you to his friend’s place (sometimes stopping at all his friend’s shops as well).  He pretty much then won’t leave you alone for your stay in that town.

The bus from Fez to Risanni (the gateway town to the Sahara Desert) is an overnight 10 hour ride.  The road is frequently under construction and the leg room is as little as I have seen since the Australian Gray Hound (bad).  After sleeping for just 20 minutes between 4:20 am and 4:40 am, I begin to see the twilight in the dessert.  We pass many small towns on the way to Resanni that have huge posters of a young man in a few cheesy poses.  It turns out that this is the King of Morocco and to be quite honest, he looked sinister.  I asked a few of the locals later what they thought of the king, and as usual in most places, received mixed reviews.

The CTM bus arrived in Risanni at 6:30 am and before I knew it, there was a man asking me to show him my baggage ticket (CTM is the premier bus service company in Morocco.  They take baggage very seriously.  In every stop there is a man employed by the company that won’t let anyone get to a bag stored in the under haul of the bus unless they have a corresponding ticket.  The bag man is careful to see that the bag sticker and the presented ticket align.  This is oddly enough the highest level of bag security that I have found in all my travels.)  I assumed that when the man asked for my ticket, that he was the bag man for CTM.  He did it in plain sight of the drivers, increasing his reputation.  Before I knew it, my bag was on top of an SUV and I was headed for the final 45 minute journey out to the dunes.

But wait a second, you’re dealing with a god damn 10 month veteran here, not some new bee.  My spidy senses started to go haywire even through the sleep deprivation.  The guard was back!  “Why aren’t the rest of the backpacker’s packs on the roof of this SUV? What is the price of the camel tour anyway?”  “The rest are coming. ”  “How many are there?”  “5 more.  And there are a many different prices for the camel.  Are you happy with this?”

Am I happy?  Since when has a person associated with a bus service EVER cared if I was happy?  I told the man to pull the bags down.  “It’s really early, we just want to find some breakfast and an Internet café to check in with our family.”  “Ok, I have a place for you to relax.  Follow me.  We don’t go anywhere until you are happy.”

I looked around and there was no one even up in the town.  Tata was the man’s name.  He quickly lead us away from the rest of the backpackers to his restaurant/hotel.  Remember what I said about personal guides?  Luckily I had my wits about me enough to not get into the car, but I failed in fending off the personal guide.

He poured some tea for us and drew out a few itineraries.  The most expensive was 1500 derahm (150 euros).  This was much more than we had heard it costs to go on this type of a trek.  I said “This is much more expensive than we were expecting.”  Tata was all smiles, but he brought a sense of urgency that quickly repealed his intended impression.  He as overweight, brown skinned, and had a buzzed head of hair (avoid him if you ever come here).  I felt cornered.  I didn’t even want to do business with this guy at all.  Then the two CTM bus drivers walked into the restaurant and had some tea.  (the place wasn’t open to the public and it was a fair bit of a walk away from the town center.  It was on the second floor as well.  The divers must have been in on it.  I didn’t want to bargain with him, because I didn’t trust him in the first place.  I just wanted to pop unto the Internet and check out what advice other travelers had given about this place.  But is was only 7am and the Internet café didn’t open for another 2 hours, so we grabbed our bags and decided to wait outside.  Tata stood in front of the door.  “Ok ok, I’ll give you the trip for 1000 derahm.”

“That wasn’t too hard.” I said to Erin as we walked down the street away from Tata’s place.  He wasn’t going to get our business on principal now.  I couldn’t trust him after his fishy move.  As we sat on the corner waiting for the Internet café to open, a few other men tried to sell the same sort of thing for 700. Many boys road their bikes by us in and beamed a beautifully honest and sincere “Bonjour!!!!” (this was the 95% that you want to see as much of as you can.)

9am hit and we made our way to the Internet café.  It was something out of a bad middle eastern joke.  Tons of computers sat on dirt floors and were connected to screens that didn’t match in color.  Probably An IT man’s worst nightmare, but the connection was faster than anywhere I had through the whole of Australia.  I scoured the Internet to find reviews and advice about Risanni and found surprisingly few things.  Advice about swindlers being present, but nothing specific and more importantly, no “trusted company”  I looked for something on Tata’s company (Chez M’Barek, Panorama Tours) and found nothing.  Instead I found a few independent websites that were tour companies of their own.  The prices started at 300 euro and ended at 3000.  I looked a little longer.

Finally I found something that said “trips should cost about 350 dirahm per night.”  and I even found a post on a travel blog with an email address and phone number of a “trusted” tour company. I looked at the number of posts that the author had made (like someone’s number of reviews on ebay) to try and validate the claim.  The poster had only made one other post.  It was likely that the poster was the owner of the tour company, but the Internet wasn’t saturated with these types of posts, so if it was the owner, he was probably more educated than most.  The English was perfect in the post.  I decided to give the phone number a call.  Within 20 minutes we were picked up by two young men in an SUV, but not before we saw the last of Tata.

As I stood outside of the bank waiting for Moha (the long shot from the travel blog) the flies began to swarm.  First it was 4 boys who stood around me in 10 foot proximity.  They were about 9 years old and trying to guess where I was from.  England? No.  Holland?  No. Australia?  No.  Canada?  No.  America?  No, China!  The boys laughed and pulled their eyes tight from the temples to simulate a slant in their eyes.  They said “NOOOOOOO!”  Joyously and I said back “You’re right, I’m from Japan!”  The boys stood by as Tata approached me.

He got really close to me and asked me if I was going on his tour.  I said no and he said I was a “Bad man.  A fake person.  A cheat.”  He said that he “gave me the information about his tours” and that I “owed” it to him to come back to him and tell him that I was going with someone else.  I apologized (only because I feared that I might be stabbed if I said what was on my mind.)

He stayed in my face and put the pressure on.  The boys turned into trinket salesmen and an old woman moved in and hovered at my waist line, begging for money.  The flies had found the shit.  It was all converging at once, and then Tata said “I’m going to go find her! She is the one that will decide.  You can not decide”  He went storming off looking for Erin.  Luckily she was upstairs in the Internet Café.  Luckily she didn’t have to witness this swarm.

Just as things got hot, an SUV pulled up with two young men and one said “Are you Alex?” and I said “Yes, what is your name?” “I am Moha.  You called me about 20 minutes ago.”  Great!  It was time to get the hell out of dodge.  “Ok, wait here, I am going to get my friend.”  “We can put your backpack in the back.”  I passed, considering the morning I had just had.

Moha said “Do you mind if we stop here in town to pick a few things up?”  We agreed.  Moha got out of the SUV and the driver, Ha-Med, sat in the driver’s seat with the windows down.  Just as I was filling Erin and the Ha-Med in about what a Fuck Tata ended up being, just like a cheesy horror movie, Tata had his final chance.

He approached the car and started yelling at Erin directly.  “You are rubbish lady!  I knew it all along!”  I looked at the driver, as if to summon his local authority to tell Tata to “Fuck the Fuck off.”, but Hamed didn’t seem concerned with Tata.  I took this as a good sign that Tata was all talk.  Still, I felt like a fish in a can.  I just wanted to get out of Ressani.  Moha got back from the market and we started down the road.  I felt relieved, but my trust was shot.

Moha looked back at us and began to tell us about his service.  He used all of the same vocabulary as Tata.  “You are Welcome.”  He said as he touched his heart.  (It is a truly elegant piece of the Moroccan culture to see someone touch their heart when they want to emphasize sincerity.) Unfortunately, people like Tata cheapen this gesture. “I make the good price.” Moha said. I look at Erin as the SUV speeds down the desolate road and wonder if Moha was completely full of shit and would turn on us just the same as Tata.  At this point, we had made our move.  It was all up to fate.

The asking price, by the way, was 550 dehram, a staggering 3rd the cost that Tata’s asking price.  This much, was already going in the right direction.  Moha’s hotel was made from mud and hay, but don’t let me scare you off, it was absolutely amazing.  It felt more like a relaxed house than a hotel.  And to be fair, it only had about 4 rooms.  It was more of a bed and breakfast.

Back at the house, Moha began to draw a stick figure map of the desert as he explained some possible itineraries.  I looked at Erin as if to collect my winnings from the bet that Moha would have the exact same itineraries as Tata, and the rest of the town for that matter.  I was right.  This whole desert thing was really suspicious.  I have found it quite common in third world nations for your neighbor to rip your idea off without even pretending to differentiate themselves.   I guess coming from America makes me hyper aware of capitalism.  Though, to be fair, in 9 times out of 10 in America the Unique Selling Point, is no more authentic than Tata’s heart pat when saying “You are welcome.”

The difference was the Moha was not pushy, at all.  He was also flexible about the experience.  “These are just suggestions.”  If you want a few more days, It’s just 300 Dehram per day.  I asked him who our guide will be and if he speaks English and he said “Gumby!”  and looked at a black man who was hanging out in the opposite corner of the room.  He looked over and said “Hey man! what’s up?” with almost no accent.  I was very pleased.  Things were looking up.

I was thrilled with the name of our guide and how relaxed he seemed.  The hotel faced the beginning of the dunes.  They were only a 15 minute walk away.  What an amazing location.  Gumby started giving us the low down on everything.  “We brought you here on 4 by 4 and now you will take 8 by 8.  You will be riding Jimmy Hendrix.  This is the name of the camel.  There are two camel.  Jimmy and Hendrix.”  Interesting to remember that Tata refered to the Camel that we would be on was also Jimmy Hendrix or Bob Marley.  To a degree, things would stay this peculiar the whole time.

Jimmy and Hendrix were loaded up with food and water and ready to be mounted.  Erin had warned me that you get on them when they are on the ground and then they stand up.  The process swings you forward and backward with more than enough force to throw you off if you weren’t prepared.  Thankfully, I was.  Erin road horses since she was a child.  I have a cowboy for a step father; that should do.

Jimmy and Hendrix are magnificently alien.  They seem to consist of neck, legs, and stomach.  I never knew how much noise camels make.  These two seem to have something barbaric to say every time you touched them, but as soon as they were walking, they seemed at home.  Gumby walked us down the dirt road with Hamed (the driver) towards the dunes.  I thought “That’s crazy.  A one to one ratio of tourist to guide.  That will never happen in the western world.”  the sun set quickly as we rocked back a forth in our saddles.

All at once, everything that I had ever passively learned about riding a camel came back.  “They aren’t like horses you know.  They are a lot wider and they take big awkward steps.  It isn’t a smooth ride at all.”  I instantly thought “and why the hell did I take the two night tour?”  I thought I would be dead in just 15 minutes at the rate of pain I was sustaining.  Just too wide.  Just too Jarring.  But the moment we entered the dunes, the ride got better.  Hendrix’s legs dug into the sand and the jerking and jarring were muffled.  By this time it was dark and the next hour of riding was made by star light.  You couldn’t really take your attention away from staying centered, because you would easily just slide off the side of Hendrix.  The saddle seemed loosely placed on him. Still the stars were in a panorama that could even be appreciated from a peripheral.  After about an hour we arrived to the camp site.

Gerard and his little brother were sitting there waiting for us.  It was very elaborate, yet nomadic at the same time.  Gerard, the cook, has the most honest face in the whole of Morocco.  His smile lines wear deep.  Upon first meeting him, he says that he only speaks a little English.  He would be the leader and champion of conversation for the rest of the trip.  Turns out, he spoke English, along with 9 other languages, very well.  Spanish, German, English, Dutch, Berber, Arabic, Basque, French, Italian, and Japanese.  This guy set a record in my book.  But he didn’t like school, because the teachers would hit him if he got a word wrong.  So he learned everything from interaction.  He told us that we would be learning some Berber while out here in the dunes, but the first thing we had to do was get proper names.  I was from now on, Mohamed and Erin was Fatima.

A few fun facts:  Mohamed is as important to the Arab and Islamic world as Jesus is to the western world.  Fatima is the name of his daughter (slightly different direction than Jesus ended up going.)  And in case you haven’t noticed yet, almost everyone is some version of Mohamed.  The two young men who picked us up in Ressani, were Moha and Hamed.  As a matter of fact, Gumby’s real name is Mohamed, but he has been going by Gumby now forever because he was sick of having the same name as everyone.  And it’s not just a joke.  EVERYONE refers to him as Gumby, even when speaking in Berber.

Gerard peels and chops vegetables with the help of Gumby as we all chat in the same communal tent.  They pile the veges in a tepee, sprinkle some magic seasoning on top, and then cover it with a tajine (like a metal cone shell).  After 40 minutes of steaming a beautiful meal is borne.  We eat the meal with our hands in true Berber style, pinching bits of the food up with pieces of Moroccan bread (think if French bread came in a 2 inch thick Frisbee form).  We share this meal, 4 nomads and us two tourists over Berber tea (the sweet mint tea that we had at the rug shop in Fez).  Jimmy and Hendrix burping and farting behind the tent.

Promptly after, the boys play some music with a local drum and some metal instruments.  Quickly after they finish, we hear drum beats in the distance.  It appears that we are not alone.  Just over the next dune, about a football field away, are other campers.  I think back to the similarities in Itineraries, Camel names and now after dinner ritual and wonder who the glue is in this.  10,000 miles from home, in the most desolate desert known to man, my capitalistic mind is still hard at work.

The chemistry between Gumby and Gerard is insane.  They make such sharp jokes at and with each other that they often have to run out of the tent and into the dark dunes in order to let their lungs have a chance.  Sure they were smoking Hash, but that is all part of the Berber experience.  Gerard is always ready to laugh and it isn’t long until we give him a reason to laugh for the rest of the trip.

I take a moment to stop and think that we are getting the experience of an incredible group of nomadic people and their camels, and a few dozen 300 foot sand dunes all to ourselves for just under $40 per day.  This tops getting to play on the Great Wall of China for only a few Bucks.

The next morning, I wore a pair of Erin’s pink cotton, baggy yoga pants to prevent the chaffing I received from Hendrix and my jeans to proliferate.  As I emerge from my tent, Erin says “Presenting…… Fatima!!!!” and the boys have a huge laugh.  Gerard runs up behind me and fits me with two mini tajines under my shirt to make me look like I have the worlds sharpest nipples.  Gumby ties a string just below to accentuate the ensemble.  The deem me Aisha (yes, like the song found on youtube) and maintain this name for the rest of the trip.  Gumby presents me with a ring and I am his wife for the remainder of the trip.  This sends Gerard into a perpetual state of laughter.  Jokes of every possible iteration and carnation are explored.  I divorce and remarry several times and hundreds of camels are moved in dowry form in the process.

This is about the time where you might be thinking, I’ve read 3717 words and I still haven’t had a proper description of the dunes.  This is also were the story gains it’s balance.  This is where the sun rises and we get our first glimpse of the dunes from up close.  Remember that we entered by night.

When the sun rose the next morning, we were situated in a sea of purity.  The sand didn’t have any of the dust or dirt that you will find at most beaches.  All of the world’s problems had been dropped from this sea in the journey.  Down to an elemental level, this sand was different.  Strong and tightly packed at points and ever eager to swallow you whole in others.  A mystery.  We might as well have been on mars.  It was so different.  The color that the winter sun brought was anything as drastic as deep red to as drab as bleached white.  You’ll see.  The pictures are amazing.

It turns out there were other tour companies just a few dunes away and that there was a small crowd forming on the local large dune.  But even then, there were well less than 40 people there in total.  We climbed a smaller dune to have the experience to ourselves and enjoyed the sunrise long after the rest of the tour groups stuck to their tight itineraries of “back on the Camel by 8am”.  This is where our guides were different.  They just let us move at our pace.  It was just the two of us, no one else to keep happy, so why not?  Strings of 8 tourists on camel back made their exit while we enjoyed a lazy brunch.

It finally occurred to me.  This was the first place that I could actually loiter since I arrived in Morocco.  It was my first vacation within a vacation.  All the people we were with actually embraced a Jamaican like attitude and it was just what we needed.  The original proposed itinerary was crowded with line item-able activities, but that was for the weekend warriors.  That was for the type of people who don’t see any reason to go to the Colosseum more than once.  Well, if it was great, do it again.  The proposed plan was to make our way to the Algerian border and check out the black desert.  Once we got there we would watch some nomadic people make couscous and sleep in their camp.  “Fuck that” I thought.  The dunes are the reason I am in Africa.  I could sit out here and ponder for days.  And why would I want to hang out with a bunch of strangers.  I want to have as much fun as I did the night before.  I know freedom when I see it, and the black desert was not it.

We told Gumby our idea and he agreed.  We spent the whole day in the dunes.  We took our time.  We loved it.

We stoped at a different nomadic tribe to have some lunch and the flies were all over me.  I couldn’t understand how, but they seemed to ignore Gumby and Erin. They even ignored the food.  It turns out that the flies of the Sahara are really only interested in Jimmy and Hendrix.  The problem was that Hendrix wiped his face on my back during the ride, thus sending the flies into a blood lust.  Erin said that I should rub an orange peel on my skin so that the oils would throw them off the scent.  After the meal, I tried it and it oddly enough worked like a charm.

After bonding with Jimmy for the whole day (I swapped Hendrix for with Erin, because I couldn’t handle how bad ass he was) I couldn’t help but feel like we were not all that different after all.  He was just a louder version on me.  In fact, now that I have been exposed to his ultra loud burping and farting, I think Ill remember him every time I am visited by the gas.

Jimmy always ate the bits of grass found in the dunes and Hendrix always pooped.  I couldn’t figure out how they swapped the food without us seeing.  On the last ride of the day, Hendrix didn’t want to get fitted with the piece that sits in his jaw.  He screamed and waived his head violently while Gumby just sat patiently waiting.  He never hit the camel for it was “His heart” and his lively hood.  The massive head hurled back and forth and as Gumby stared with concentration.  In a flash, like a ninja, Gumby caught Hendrix by the hair on his chin, a paralyzing hold.  But Gumby never forced Jimmy or Hendrix into anything and he let them eat all the grass they pleased.  He even had us walk for a portion because the dunes were too steep for the camels and he didn’t want them to struggle too much.

After a stellar time, we came back to the hotel made of mud to create this post.

This particular experience was sponsored by Cary Johnson and I’d like to thank him for his wonderful generosity.  This is Cary’s second experiential sponsorship (you might remember reading about his first in the caves of Turkey).  Cary is the Vice President of eVisibility, the Internet Marketing Agency that I used to work at.  He is known as the Candy Man in the office, because he is always coming back from lunch with treats for everyone.  I’d like to share a story now about Cary’s character.

One day I was having a bad day and I brought it to the office.  When I was leaving a meeting, Cary asked me for a favor (something small, like to print something out) and I basically shrugged him off.  A few minutes later he came into my office and said the following:

“What you did out there hurt.  I come into the office every day and only treat you one way.  Like a god. All I do is brag about you and back you on every decision.  You’ve got to give me some of that back.”

I apologised and he left the room, but then it really hit me.  It was true.  He was right.  All he ever did to anyone in the office was breed a positive vibe.  He backed us all and that is so rare.  He was in the position of power where he didn’t need to treat us like equals, but he chose to.

Now, even when I am no longer under an employment agreement, he still looks out for me.

Cary is actually a new father as of the end of October!  He and his beautiful wife Brook just had their first child Olivia!  Thinking of how well Cary treated me and everyone else at eVisibility, I know that his daughter is bound to be spoiled to pieces with love and support.  This makes me happy.  REAL HAPPY.

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