Morocco

A LUCKY EGG

Along the side of the road we are waiting for a grand-taxi to Tinerhir. It is still early in the morning; for once we have skipped breakfast. The elderly English couple that has also spent the night in our little hotel, is busy stuffing all their belongings in a little car while sighing heavily. Ibrahim sees us standing there and with wild gestures he suggests we better get in the car with them. The woman looks in our direction with pity in her eyes, she doesn't mind if we join them for the ride.But her nervously pipe-smoking husband thinks differently. Six people in that little Fiat? With all that luggage? No way.
Disappointed we waiting there once more, alongside the deserted road.There comes Ibrahim again. Angryly he objects: how can they let us standing there? Do they not see we are travelling with a toddler! A child, how can one say no" to them!?

Madness

Two minutes later we are sitting in the crowded backseats of the car next to the English woman.Erg Chebbi We suggest they drop us at the busstation of Tinerhir. But the ever smoking husband has put up with the idea of bringing us all the way; "no, it is alright if you come with us to Merzouga…" he sighs. They have an exhausting journey ahead of them: from the Todra Canyon to the desert of Merzouga, to quickly admire the famous sand dunes, and to be back in Marrakesh before midnight. A distance of a couple of hundreds kilometersAuberge Oasis. Wé think it is madness... The woman looks at me as if suffering, when with a low voice she admits that she too would have loved to spend a night at the foot of the sand dunes. Oh well, no time… We suspect her husband to be the inventor of this inhuman schedule. Travelling like this you don't see anything of the country! They did not even have time to visit the canyon, they arrived too late yesterday evening. Driver Mohammed turns out to be a real swanker. He talks of Merzouga as though he has been going there for years, but when a little while later he constantly has to telephone with Marrakesh and he takes a wrong turn a couple of times, the truth becomes apparent. It's a long journey through a dry landscape ("mama…, there is not really anything to see out here, you know"), with a short coffee break in Rissani; there is no time to make more stops. The straight road from Rissani to Merzouga has only recently been asphalted. Somewhere along the way we make a turn, and bump and slide across the dark, sandy and rocky ground in the direction of the Erg Chebbi: the famous sand dunes – as you see them in the Sahara – of Morocco. After more than 200 kilometer driving, Mohammed goes straight for a hotel, of which the name has probably been whispered in his ears while phoning. He insists that we sleep here. But we had already put our minds on another small hotel and we do not give in. We give him a generous tip, lift the backpacks off the ground and walk through the wilderness towards a cluster of little houses not far from here. Furious, Mohammed watches us leave.

Garden of EdenHassi Labied

It is getting warm, it is one o'clock and the sun is at its highest point. This is Hassi Labied, a hamlet just before Merzouga. The few houses here all have the same sand colour as the ground we are walking on. Yellow-brown. Right in front of the village are the yellow-golden dunes. Fascinating! Even our auberge looks just like a sand hotel. At first sight the place looks deserted, but then we see a reticent, but friendly looking man coming towards us with the key to one of the rooms. He turns out to be one of the three brothers, les frères Oubana. Monsieur Oubana is wearing a jellaba and he looks through studentlike glasses. It gives him an air of wisdom. He remains silent, he smiles and walks with slow steps, and we follow him. The room is simple with all the basic necessities, a double bed, a single bed, a little table, a cupboard and an Erg Chebbienormous shower. Ideal. The second frère Oubana gestures to us: he wants us to follow him. He shows us his treasure room, a tiny place full of costumes of the region, blue attires like the desert nomads usually wear them. He is wearing one himself too. From his large collection of souvenirs he takes a heavy, shiny grey-black egg and gives it to Misha. There are fossiles on it. It's a gift, he says. Thát is very nice! Soon we discover that we are the only guests in the hotel. In the front yard we find a game of jeu-de-boule, of which the little one cannot get enough. Is this the Garden of Eden, or does it just look like it? From my lazy chair I look right onto the highest dune, it almost looks of pure gold. The young cook speaks very well English (until then we usually had to communicate in French). He suggests we try his kalia. We had already read something about this Berber meal in our travelguide. It is made of boiled eggs, green peas, tomatoes, square pieces of meat and onion. Delicious, after having eaten couscous and tajine day in and day out. In the early evening we walk through the palm trees towards the dunes; the sun is setting and is turning the dunes into a bright red colour. A Berber girl of about six is coming along with us. She has a beautiful face. I ask after her name a couple of times, and decide it must be Monna or something alike… Misha is glad to have found a friend. Together they laugh and run down the sandy hills. Struggling in the fine sand they climb up again, before rolling down once more. Some more children come running towards us, all boys. They play along. Until they suddenly remember there is work to do. They empty their pockets and show us all kind of things: souvenirs for the tourists. We also spot our egg, in a smaller size. But as soon as it becomes apparent that we are not willing to buy anything, they put their things away and immediately continue playing. Kids will always be kids.

Climbing

In the restaurant musical instruments are lying about on the floor. Misha is curious, picks one up and tries to get some sound out of it. The sympathetic cook comes running, accompaMerzouganied by Abdel. Abdel speaks fluent German – learned it from the tourists he guides on tours in the sand desert. Together they get the Berber vibes and without hesitating take the instruments at hand. Such drumming! Such a rhythm! Husband and child are dancing and jumping, while the drum beats are getting faster and faster. They give the little one an instrument that looks more like two iron lids. With all his might he begins to smash the two things against each other. None of them seems to be getting enough of it, but we had planned to climb the high dune this morning and we better not wait too long. The sun is already standing remorselessly high in the blue sky. Slowly we climb up. The rust red sand is fine as powder. After each step in the sand we sink backwards a little, but in some of the firmer places the climbing is easy. Especially the last bit is tiresome, steep up while our shoes are disappearing in the sand. Sitting on the summit we can see all the dunes that surround us. There is a strong wind, sand like dust is blowing into our eyes. The dunes look empty; no camp, no camel, no tourist in sight. Far away, to the south east, we see a high rocky outcrop that must be part of Algeria. In fErg Chebbiront of us lies Hassi Labied, and more to the south the slightly bigger village of Merzouga. Not a cloud in the sky. Quickly we walk back down before the sand gets too hot. Time for siesta! A few hours later we are playing a game of memory in the shade of the hotel. The cards must have gone through a couple of desert storms already, as they are so old and dilapidated that we can hardly see the pictures. For the second time we order a kalia; we might as well enjoy it while we can. After dinner we make the round of the sand colour village in just a few minutes. The sand mosque has a true sand minaret. In a small shop we buy a bottle of mineral water, cookies and a pack of orange juice. A Japanese tourist is walking in the streets too, huge camera hanging around her neck. She is surrounded by hordes of children. Back at the hotel, we ascend the staircase up to the roof. The sun is just about to go down, the muezzin is calling for prayer and slowly the stars appear one by one. Millions of stars. Gigantic milky ways as long white stains in the sky. What a magical place, let us stay here one night more!

Wishes

The next morning we walk the four kilometer to Merzouga. Soon it is getting hot, and Misha doesn't fancy the long walk. But we are already half way and unfortunately there are no cars around. We hope we will be able to get a ride back along the asphalt road. Children are walking with uErg Chebbis. "Stylo? Dirham? Biscuit? Cahier? Bonbon?", are some of their wishes. An hour later we enter the village. The deserted streets all look very much alike. Just walk straight on through is our motto, we will surely be getting somewhere. And yes, there we find the end of the asphalt road. In the café on the corner of the street we drink four pots of peppermint tea. We are so incredibly thirsty! At this spot we find all the main buildings of the town; a police station, a bank. They look very modern. There's not a soul in the streets. And there is no traffic passing by. Misha is playing on the floor with the daughter of the owner of the café. Then suddenly we see a luxurious camper coming towards us from behind the empty horizon. They park in front of the café. The Spanish couple takes the table right behind us. Immediately they are being submitted to a discussion with the local guide, while large albums with photos of camel tours are being laid out on the table. Even in Merzouga time seems to have stSand dunesood still. We hardly see any tourist, when actually this is supposed to be one of the highlights of Morocco. To think that the Paris-Dakar race passes through this little village; January seems to be one of the busiest months! But now… All this time we are sitting here drinking tea, nothing drove by. And we have not seen a taxi yet either. Fortunately, waiting usually will bring up something in the end, and there it is: a rental car with two French couples. At first they do not seem willing to take us in; just imagine, seven people in that little car! But soon they put their objections aside and we can jump in. They bring us right to the door of the hotel and decide to have some dinner at the restaurant.

Busy

After siesta one might even call it busy in the hotel. With the Czech couple we eat a delicious kalia for the third and last time. They tell us in full colour about their eight day trekking through the Atlas Mountainrange. The Japanese and the German couple immediately get ready for a night out in the desert, the camels are already waiting outside. The Japanese is in a hurry, he wjeu de bouleants to leave early next morning for the ride to Fès, more than four hundred kilometers further north. The French are running to and thro in blue robes and turbans. Their cameras are clicking incessantly. Tomorrow we will leave, and actually it's about time. Our favourite personnel has left for the desert. Even the cook is gone, now someone else is cooking for us. Suddenly Monsieur Oubana turns up with a happy face. Full of emotion he tells us his story. When, twenty-five years ago, he started working as a tourist guide for trips into the desert, a French couple and their three young children had been his very first guests. Now, after all this time, he had stood face to face with them once again: the French couple in the car! The feelings were mutual, the French too were delighted to see him again. Together they spent hours taking pictures of each other; the blue attires could finally be taken out of his treasure case. Stammering, he thanks us extensively for all this luck that, as he says, our little blond boy has brought upon him! And thanks to his gift, the egg! After dinner we say goodbye to the dunes. While sitting in the red sand, we watch the sun going down. We walk back in the dark, while behind us we see lightning over Algeria. Will it rain tomorrow?

 

© 2006 Monique van Gaal.
The dutch version of this story has been published in Backpackers Magazine, spring 2006.