It was an eerie kind of quiet as we walked along the huge dunes at dawn, the only sounds being the crunching sound of the sand under our feet. From this spot on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, it was nothing but sand as far as we could see, extending beyond the horizon to Algeria, though borders seem rather meaningless in this landscape. "I'm so glad we made it here," I said as we stopped to take a photo.
If it hadn't been for a random stranger we met when we arrived in Morocco, it probably never would have happened.
When we set off from the USA for our second round-the-world journey, we newlyweds were wiser but not richer. We had worked for a year to save up some cash, get married, and then go traveling the world again. Technically our first stop—Morocco—was a honeymoon, but not one in the traditional sense. We were traveling on a budget of $25 a day for the two of us and though the year was 1996 and Morocco was a good value, that still didn't leave a lot of room for honeymoon bliss pampering.
After one night on the way from Casablanca, we arrived to breathe in the damp misty air of our first destination, Chefchaouen. It's a gorgeous city in the mountainous north of the country, geographically close to Spain. It was a peaceful place with very few touts, calls to prayer that were almost apologetic in their volume, and locals who went about their business practically ignoring us. I was on my guard though, after reading too many Paul Bowles books and spending too much time on message boards with horror stories about scams, rip-offs, and threats of bodily harm in Morocco.
The town put on a good show. Local men were wearing long one-piece djellabas with hoods, women wore their versions with more colors. They spilled out of the mosque onto the worn stones and patterned tiles of the square. The ancient Kasbah looms over it all, the mountains behind that, sometimes shrouded in clouds. We drank sweet mint tea, ate pastries, and watched it all go by.
We met a Berber man named Ali in the street while exploring and chatted for a while in English, not always easy in these parts since Arabic, French, and Spanish were all more common. "You should meet my cousin," he said. "His English is better than mine and he's a traveler. Come to my house for tea."
There was a tinge of suspicion since this was literally a man off the street who happened upon us, in a season when there weren't many foreigners around. This was our second time traveling around the world, however, so we knew that these encounters were usually to be welcomed, not feared. We just assumed there would be a stop at a shop along the way—he told us up front that he owned one—but we went straight to his home instead. We met his cousin, his wife, and a few children running around while laughably bad Arabic music videos played in the background.
Eventually the subject of where we were going next came up and our plans to make our way to Fez intersected with his cousin Karim's plans. That seemed like too much of a coincidence until we found out he lived in Fes and was just visiting. We said we were going to get bus tickets soon. "Take the train, it's nicer," he said and we made plans to ride together.
I wasn't sure if this was some kind of long con that would rope us in eventually, but he seemed admirably laid-back if that was the case. Neither of them tried to push goods from the store or wanted any money for assistance in getting tickets sorted out or providing herbs to steam for the colds we had come down with. While there was a nagging suspicion that we were going to regret the trust later, that kept fading further back in our minds as we got to know Karim better.
This culminated in a sit-down for lunch at Ali's house after we made our way through alleys of blue and white houses with adorned arches and windows. "Bring your guidebook," Karim had requested earlier. "I want to see what your plans are because I have some ideas for you." After we enjoyed a big steaming platter of cous-cous with vegetables and chicken, he asked where we were planning to go in the country and then started making alternate suggestions.
We spent a couple more days in Chefchaouen, getting lost hiking up to a hillside mosque and getting yelled at by a trilingual shepherd when we mistakenly detoured through a graveyard. We then were dogged by a teenager who seemed mentally off. He tried to sell us hash, made some suggestive comments, then wouldn't listen when we told him in four languages to buzz off. He followed us most of the way down the mountain, getting more animated, so we were a bit rattled and ready to return to the bustle of town our last night, then move on the next day.
Here was the Morocco I'd been warned about by a legion of past travelers. Were we taking a chance putting our Morocco itinerary in the hands of a local?
We read our guidebook on the train ride to see more about the places Karim had suggested. We were still heading to the "greatest hits" of Fes and Marrakech, but he had filled us in on some memorable spots to put into our Morocco itinerary (Merzouga, Todra Gorge, and Essaouira), as well as some to avoid (Agadir and Tangier).
Our first stop was his city though, so he switched into tour guide mode and insisted on showing us around. We were usually glad to get out of our budget hotel anyway. It was only around $8 and had lots of natural light, but with a squat toilet, cold shower, and a location that was uncomfortably close to a mosque speaker. The call to prayer would jolt us awake in the middle of the night and then wail on for ten minutes at least.
He led us around the ancient alleys of the city to a few spots most tourists see, but to many more that we would have never discovered on our own—or been able to find in those pre-GPS days. We walked down passageways where even the word "alley" seemed too generous, narrow lanes where two people walking opposite directions would rub shoulders. Deliveries in those areas came by the back of a donkey or pony as they did 1,000 years ago; nothing else would fit through.
The shopkeepers sat on tiny stools in a small circle of space they had set aside in their claustrophobic stores. The stores seemed like nothing more than oversized closets. Most had metal doors that the shopkeeper could draw closed and lock, but when going to lunch they often just draped a blanket over their wares to function as a "closed" sign. The vegetable sellers often didn't even have a shop: they would just lay out what they had to sell on a sheet and squeeze as close to the wall as possible so people could pass.
We took a local bus out to Mouley Yacoaul, a location of natural hot springs in the mountains. After a lot of cheap hotels with cold showers since arriving in the country, the steaming hot mineral water baths felt divine. We felt good about our itinerary suggestions from Karim after this excursion he suggested: the town was full of Moroccan tourists but we didn't encounter another foreigner all day.
We met Karim on the third day at the pretty Le Jardin Publique for a snack and sodas, then hesitantly asked for a favor.
While most tourists spend their whole vacation trying to dodge carpet sellers, we actually wanted Karim to help us buy a couple rugs. My suspicion of him faded even more when he met this request with reluctance and uneasiness. We had planned to buy a kilim for our own house though, plus one as a present for Donna's sister. We knew how easy it was to get ripped off, so we just wanted someone along who could spot the scams. We were willing to make the investment, but not willing to drastically overpay.
Eventually we talked him into it after a good bit of effort. The next day we started at the government cooperative shop where the prices were fixed. The quality was high, but so were the prices, so after lots of smiling, sipping tea, and watching the dramatic rolling out of different options starting at US$800, we extracted ourselves and moved on.
He then took us to a Berber place where they made blankets on site and sold kilims from the mountain villages. We narrowed it down to three, started negotiating for two, and with his help eventually settled on two for US$450. This was still a massive sum for a backpacker couple, especially since we would later spend $60 more to ship them home, but we had some wedding cash to work with and being newly married make us feel we should step up our game a bit in the quality of what we were purchasing.
As I wrote in my journal that night, "It's more than I wanted to spend, but these carpets are older than us and these are quality pieces that will last a long time. Everyone says they're not made with as much care now and ours will look great in our living room when we settle down again. The time has come in my life to start buying a few quality items instead of disposable junk. This is a start."
Before leaving, we had an afternoon lunch at Karim's house, cooked by his wife, and still got no requests for money, for favors, for anything besides a vague request to stay with us if he ever got back to America. "You can send me a T-shirt from New York City," he said and that was it. We hugged our goodbyes and set off on his custom-designed plans for us.
"We're on the edge of the Sahara—on the edge of where humans live, it feels like. The glowing golden dunes are spread out before us like a mountain range, the shadows moving in and out of the valleys as the dun draws closer to setting. It's strange how the dunes just come to a stop here. Why this spot? What keeps the sand from rolling forward to bury this collection of mud and straw buildings like our little hotel, returning them to their original state, scattered over the ground?" (1996 journal entry from Merzouga.)
"You must go to Merzouga," Karim had told us, "and walk on the dunes of the Sahara Desert." We hadn't originally planned on it because everything we read made it seem like an all-day, uncomfortable journey to get there. "Yes, it is, but it's worth it," he said so we put it on the list.
When the sun wasn't blazing hot, we did hike the dunes, feeling disoriented and fearful in a primal way when we lost sight of the flat land we had come from. It wouldn't take long to die from thirst at mid-day. In July and August it can hit 48 degrees Celsius (118 F) in the afternoon, so the Bedouins only move at night. There wasn't much to do in Merzouga itself so the locals seemed to spend most afternoons playing music and banging on drums. The most devout waited for a call to prayer to break up the day.
We walked into a nearby village and a tall man in a djellaba greeted us. Of course he had a shop and wanted to sell us something, but first we took a tour of the oasis garden. Despite the inhospitable look of the area, a sea of brown, here they grew onions, peppers, figs, mint, and squash between the date palms and apricot trees. His shop turned out to be merely a collection of dust-covered trinkets in a small spare room of his house, so we drank a cup of tea but couldn't find anything worth buying. He shrugged and didn't seem to mind. Our visit was probably a diversion from the monotony of another desert day like the others.
The journey out to the edge of the Sahara did indeed require a lot of effort. We broke up the trip by spending the night in the boring transit town of Erfoud, chatting with random strangers who wanted to talk to us as we sat on the terrace of our hotel.
Some were touts, others scammers, but one was a 25-year-old student who was in some kind of tourism program and wanted to practice his English. He couldn't resist trying to sell us a Land Rover excursion, but otherwise it was just hours of routine conversation with a few curveballs thrown in. When we heard a donkey braying in a moment of silence, he said, "The animal is talking to Satan." During another pause, he suddenly asked, "Have the people in America solved the question of the Bermuda Triangle?"
The journey back took a whole day and was eventful in the wrong ways. The shared taxi from Merzouga to Erfoud had a windshield that was cracked in every direction and only the driver's door had window handles. The odometer had passed 350,000 kilometers but no longer functioned. Neither did the speedometer, though that didn't matter much on the desert road. When the driver came to a small town on the way, he abruptly pulled over, left us in the hot sun, and went into a local mosque where the call to prayer was blaring over distorted speakers.
We eventually got to where we needed to go and transferred to our next recommendation on Karim's list: Todra Gorge.
Todra Gorge presented the kind of landscape you would find in the dry southwest of the USA. A tiny stream that can become a mighty river snakes through massive red stone walls. Our "penthouse" room at the top of a sizable hotel had a balcony looking out at the gorge, a tea terrace, and a beautiful traditional dining room set up to look like big Berber tents. Again, the owner had an aversion to hot water, but for $8 a night it was hard to complain. We came for two nights but ended up staying for three, hiking through the canyon and exploring viewpoints that looked out on collections of houses that felt like something from a movie.
"I'm so glad we came here," it was Donna's turn to say as we watched the fading sun's glow move across the gorge while sipping our tea. Another out-of-the-way place that we shared mostly with locals. We would not have made the effort to reach it without the suggestion from one.
When we left to make our way to obligatory Marrakech, it was an all day and night affair, from 9 a.m. to nearly midnight counting the inevitable waiting at transfer depots. One of the buses stopped at a roadside area where carcasses hung from hooks in a long line of stalls. The customers were supposed to indicate which section to hack off, then once it was cut up or ground up, they were to take this to another stall where it would be grilled up and brought to the table. Although I was a carnivore, it certainly didn't make me hungry. My pescatarian wife had arrived complaining about how hungry she was, but was now in danger of vomiting.
We walked around Marrakech feeling like a number: there were seemingly thousands of tourists around and an equal number of aggressive vendors, touts, and guides trying to get their business. Every conversation seemed to involve a negotiation or a sales pitch. We realized how lucky we were to have Karim at our side in Fes. He was like a force field that had allowed us to avoid most of the come-ons.
We had already been thinking about finishing up in the seaside city of Essaouira, with its imposing fortress facing the waves, and Karim confirmed that this was a good plan. The first evening, as we sat on a rooftop terrace, looking out over the ramparts to Essaouira's beach and the Atlantic Ocean, we congratulated ourselves on a good mutual decision. The seagulls were flying overhead, I was finally drinking a few beers, and a group of women were singing beautifully in the courtyard below.
There were more than a few beggars on the streets of Essaouira and a higher-than-usual number of wandering people talking to themselves. One character kept walking through the square with a battered envelope addressed to someone in Columbus, Ohio. He kept shoving it in foreigners' faces and asking for money for shipping. We saw him every day on our own walks and could see him in action from our roof terrace. Once in a while it worked. Over the course of a year he probably collected enough money for 100 shipments.
Otherwise, the vibe of this beach city felt a world away from the constant pitches of Marrakech. When we browsed the woodcarving shops, nobody grabbed our arms or tried to pressure us to buy something (so we actually did instead of fleeing). We were happy to see couples touching each other, women wearing bikinis, and places where backpackers could order an alcoholic drink.
After a blissful end to three weeks in Morocco, we caught a flight to Egypt and moved on to another set of scammers and touts, looking for another Karim we could trust, but never finding him.
We had Donna's sister ship Karim a t-shirt from New York City and later we sent him a postcard from Jordan. When we got back to the USA there was a letter from him sent to Donna's parents' address, with a "hope to visit you someday" note but no requests for anything else. We wrote back and said he was welcome anytime, but we never heard from him again.
After all the scams we had encountered in years of traveling around the world, I was ashamed to admit that I never completely shook the expectation of some kind of long-con request for money to come, with some heartstrings-pulling story about a sibling needing an operation or his family's house burning down, but he showed me how unfounded those suspicions were. The request never came.
I finally squashed any lingering suspicion for good. I realized there was no angle he was playing, no squeezing that was going to take time to kick in. No, he was just a nice guy being hospitable to strangers passing through his country, with nothing expected in return.
I've tried to live by that example in my years since when showing off my own city, whatever city that happened to be. I've tried to be generous and helpful, dishing out my assistance and advice with no reciprocal expectations. I don't think I'll ever live up to Karim's example, though I'll keep trying.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning travel writer and blogger. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.
Three Walnuts, Three Pomegranates in Morocco - Zora O'Neill
Common Ground in the Kasbah - James Michael Dorsey
Traveling With the Moroccan Chameleon That Didn't Want to Die - Marco Ferrarese
Clear and Prescient Danger in Morocco - Luke Armstrong
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