“The sun draws out the cold in your bones,” they say, pointing up to the sun as if it’s doing them a favor.
I beg to differ, as I lay in my hostel bed, un-air-conditioned, sweaty, and exhausted. I don’t mind cold in my bones. Jumping from Reykjavík to Marrakesh was perhaps the most drastic climatic move a traveler can make. It’s hard to adjust between a cool summer evening in the world’s northernmost capital to 110 degrees of blazing sunlight on the edge of the Sahara.
If one thing’s nice, though, it’s that the prices are perhaps 10% of what they were in Iceland. I do not exaggerate. Where a hostel bed is easily $50 in Iceland, it’s $5 here. A glass of juice was around $3.50 in Iceland, but it’s 30 dirhams ($0.30) here…and they squeeze it directly from the fruit right in front of you.
My Moroccan Itinerary
The medina, or souk, is what you think of when you think Morocco. Westerners have these images from spy movies: motorcycles running through cramped, narrow sandstone streets, fruit stalls and vendors and spice merchants, crowds of Moroccans, and then five times a day the muezzin calling the Muslims to prayer. That image? It’s pretty much dead on. Just add in the smells: burning incense, lamb tajine, caged chickens, racks of spices, camels, hot mint tea.
I stayed in the Marrakech medina for two nights. The first was a quiet and peaceful experience, at a traditional Moroccan riad – a small private hotel surrounding a central courtyard. The second night, in a hostel, was the opposite experience. The differences were drastic, even if the price was similar. At the first, I was welcomed with open arms, air conditioning, impeccable cleanliness, and unfailing hospitality. At the second – roaches, dust, 110 F temperatures, and backed-up showers. But it is what it is. My entire stay in Morocco was like this; ultimate luxury one night, near-squalor the next night. I woke up early and bought a bus ticket to Merzouga and hightailed it out of there. 500 long kilometers later, I came to the Auberge La Chance, a hotel in a village called Hassi Labiad, at the base of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
Getting off the beaten path in Hassi Labiad
I’ve never been a fan of big cities, and maybe that’s why Marrakesh didn’t do much for me. But out here, in the desert, the real Morocco begins.
A man named Ali shows me around town. He is descended from nomads. His family wandered the Sahara until 1960, when fifty families settled at this oasis, built some houses, and named it Hassi Labiad. The land immediately around the spring is arable, and each family’s plot of farmland is irrigated and gets a certain amount of hours of water per week, depending upon the size of their land. We wander the streets under a very hot noonday sun, Ali showing me the traditional Berber ovens, the school, the mosque, and finally sitting down inside a little shop where his friend squeezes us glasses of fresh orange juice.
“A sand bath is good for rheumatism,” Ali says. Again with the heat! It’s a big draw for Moroccans. They travel from all over to the dunes in order to be buried for a few minutes. And that’s what’s great about Hassi Labiad. It’s a few kilometers away from the more tourist-centric village of Merzouga. The only Europeans I see during my four days here are some Germans in a camper van. We looked at each other as if we were aliens.
Into the Sahara
My last night in Merzouga is spent in the dunes. Riding camels a few kilometers into the massive sand dunes and spending a night in a Berber tent is about the most touristy thing that you can do in Morocco, but if this is touristy, it’s the right kind of touristy. Hassan Hussein is a Berber who makes his living taking folks like me out to his little circle of tents in the middle of Erg Chebbi. For $25, he’ll plop you on a camel and lead you out to his little hollow in the sands, where he makes mint tea, chicken tajine, and slices melons for you to eat as he plays around with instruments. He’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, and although his German is better than his English, he’s able to at least roughly communicate in at least seven languages (Berber, Arabic, French, German, English, Spanish, and Mandarin, if that tells you the nationality of most visitors in the area).
After Merzouga, I went to Casablanca where I stayed (fighting a brief bout of stomach sickness from some unsanitary dinner) until I flew out (I’m now on my way to a short stopover in Dubai, via Emirates).
Surprises and Misconceptions About Backpacking Morocco
Morocco is not without frustrations for the traveler, whether you’re backpacking or traveling at a little more luxurious pace.
The only way to know you’re in a certain area or village is by asking.
The cities aren’t very natural for westerners to get their heads around. It can be almost impossible to navigate bigger cities like Marrakesh, Fes, or Casablanca without some form of map. Even out in the desert, things don’t have signs.
In the desert, temperatures can reach a hundred degrees.
Yet, half a day’s drive away in the Atlas Mountains people are skiiing among spruces.
The political atmosphere is unusual.
Morocco is a kingdom, and it makes for a stable political sphere. But the adoration with which Moroccans adore their king is a little odd. Large photographs of him, adorned in royal vestments, hang everywhere. The Moroccan royal flag is draped everywhere.
The Moroccan tout is a famous character, and he shows up everywhere.
Negotiation, surprise costs, and misremembering of amounts should be expected. For example, I arranged for a driver to take me to Fes. At the hotel we arranged a price for the trip, a little bit steep but fair. I spent all day with the driver, and things went fine until I had him stop by an ATM so I could replenish my dwindling supply of dirhams. I kid you not: in the next three hours we only covered around 20 miles and he took me by five different shops where I was presented with everything from thousand dollar rugs to one dollar coffees (I bought the coffees). Finally, while stopped by the side of the road looking at his friend’s polished fossils, I told him that I wasn’t going to buy anything and I needed to get to Fes. Not only did we miss my train in Fes, but the price of the trip suddenly doubled. I refused to accept this new revelation, so we had an in-depth discussion of honoring commitments until he was finally happy with the original price plus a small tip. This will happen often.
It’s actually remarkably effective to say lah, which is Arabic for no and which suddenly turns you into a seasoned traveler.
When it’s someone you’ve been interacting with, however, it becomes tiresome to express that no, you don’t want to take a thousand dollar rug to your parents as a gift, and yes, they would like it, but no, you’re not dragging fifty pounds of Berber rug through four more weeks of travel around Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific.
Another thing happened far too often to be a coincidence: wrong change and exchange rates. Whether it was an official train station ticket counter or the waiter at a cafe, it’s easy to get stiffed if you’re not paying attention: regretful, but a reality.
Morocco In A Nutshell
Hassan Hussein is the type of person that makes Morocco, and especially the desert, so amazing to visit. Instead of calling people Americans, he calls them Barack Obamas. He’s proud of his desert, his goats, his family, his drums, and just about everything around him. He makes a killer hot mint tea, which he proclaims “Berber whiskey!” and downs in a gulp, and doesn’t try to sell you on any extras.
I enjoy interacting with different people and cultures, and it’s a shame when the big fat money targets on our foreheads get in the way of having a real conversation. Fortunately, it’s always possible (wherever you are) to find someone who’s genuinely interested in you & your culture as well. The best way? Find the people who actively ask you questions instead of merely offering canned tourist information.
Hassan Hussein asked me a million questions. How many children do I have? How many siblings? Is America close to Japan? How big is Palestine? Does Barack Obama have Facebook?
I was able to answer all the above, and then ask him the same things.
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