Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I am going to North Africa—I am going to ride a camel across the Sahara Desert.  No joke, I did go to Africa and rode a camel across the desert and I lived to tell the tale!

Caravan in the Moroccan desert, 
(my shadow) far south of the city of Marrakech

Morocco became a super popular tourist destination (I think—or so have decided to report without doing the research) when low budget airlines such as Ryanair began traveling there in the late 2000's.  I wanted to go to an exotic faraway land and this was only a little disappointing because these French tourists were everywhere.  Marrakech was like Disneyland but after a few days in the city, moving further south into the desert, I was truly in a different world.   

It is nighttime in the desert, a deep blue sky, stars.  A tall dark man in a turban stands at the fire we sit around, speaking French.  I don't know what he is saying but I am, listening.

The first thing I determined to do when I settled in Rome was travel somewhere else.  First the train to Florence, then the Uffizi (one of the oldest museums in the world, a favorite), Boboli Gardens, the train to Pisa (famous for the substandard construction of its most famous building) and finally the one way flight to Marrakech, Morocco.

The primary languages spoken in Morocco are Moroccan Arabic, Berber, French and at least phrases such as "Merci!" (Thank you) and "Pardon, Excusez-moi," (Pardon, excuse me, French) well they seem a little less alien than "La Shokran" (No thanks) and "Na'am!" (Yes!, Arabic).

The first three things I remember seeing when I arrived in Marrakech; a Kentucky Friend Chicken, a snake charmer and this man wearing a robe, a taqiyah (a sort of hat), speeding through a tight crowd of people on his tiny moped.

Moroccans are mayhem with their mopeds..

Later when asked why I reluctantly caved and paid five euros to the snake charmer after he demanded I take his photo, I explained that it was because he had a cobra.

A king cobra, with teeth.

And there were these old, yellow, Mercedes Benz taxis everywhere.

The sun brought me to life contrasted with overcast Italy.

I like the sun.

I hate to rely on cliche (or risk being culturally insensitive) but I am going to save myself the arduous process of describing this city in vivid detail by likening it to what you'd expect if you've seen Aladdin.

The old, Arab quarter of a North African town is called a medina.

A Riad is a typical Moroccan building with thick walls that block out sound, a fountain or courtyard in the center that most of the rooms face inwards to, this is the traditional Moroccan city home and in my case hostel.

Arriving at my Riad was not as difficult as I expected in the intimidating maze of streets through the medina.

 This man demanded I take his photo, then demanded I pay for it, 
if you would have been there you would have listened to him too.

The first thing I did after checking in was climb to the top of the building, children played drums in the distance, I could see the marketplace beyond the rooftops, the Koutoubia Mosque loomed above all—I awaited the suspense of it's eerie call to prayer.

Back in the desert sand dunes seem to stretch beyond the infinite as we watched the sun crawl underneath a distant horizon.  We will sleep in tents, on cots in makeshift, semi-permanent, nomad camps with thick canvased tents designated as sleeping areas, eating places etc.  In the morning the rising sun penetrates through the material.  It is cold at night, only 70 degrees during daytime wandering of sand dunes, camels and sandboarding.

The endless desert relates to those endless, geometric Islam patterns that seem to go on forever, a mountain here, a mountain there, everything just keeps going.

Days earlier a woman has been literarily thrown off her ass and into the river crossing of the UNESCO world heritage sight at Ait Benhaddou a fortified city on the old caravan route to Marrakech were Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and The Living Daylights have been filmed.  Our guide explained the need and the plan to build a bridge, and I wittily (being the jackass I can be) remarked that crossing on donkeys was much more fun.

     Ait Benhaddou

I traveled with a friend, Andrea (who found it strange that Andrea is a girl's name in the United States), he spoke only English and Italian and his girlfriend spoke only Italian and French.  Our guide, Abdel, supposed to be fluent in English and Italian, spoke only Arabic and French. 

When Abdel told Andrea's girlfriend some long important story, Andrea got a few sentences from her and from him, I got a few words.

Once when driving through an imperceptibly wide valley in our Toyota Land Cruiser, Abdel told us we were at the bottom of a dry lake that had no water because it hadn't rained in twenty years.

As we drove past a restaurant that was in the middle of the dried up lake, I asked Andrea, who asked his girlfriend, who asked Abdel what happens to them when it rains.

He said that they were big fans of global warming.

He really did.

He also said there were lions.

I could have been eaten.

This is how I would best describe Andrea's persona; 

When Andrea and I met two Hungarian vegetarians he told them that the reason God created animals was so that people could eat them.

The proper way to kill what you eat in Morocco is to tie it upside down by its hind legs and cut its forelimbs off allowing it to bleed to death and let me tell you, those viciously slaughtered lambs are delicious!

This is how I would best describe my own persona; 

When Andrea asked me if our chef, in the desert, cleaned his hands before preparing our chicken dinner I pointed out that he also wasn't wearing any shoes and I went with it.

For the ten days I was in Morocco I did not drink.

It is against the law of the Quran.

Picture me crawling through the desert crying,

"Beeeer, Beeeer!"

Get it?  Like instead of going water! water! I just wanted a beer, ya know? ok..

The thirty minutes I spent lost in a labyrinth of identical sand dunes was the scariest, soberest thirty minutes of my life—luckily the Barbary Lion is widely believed to be extinct.

Back in the city I am ordering food at Jemaa el Fnaa Square by pointing to what is in front of the woman in a black veil and her son sitting beside me.  I ate a lot of stuff in Morocco, that I am honestly not sure what it was, sausages, lamb, beef, this read dipping sauce, freshly squeezed orange juice at a stall I returned to again and again, a soup composed of snail shells in broth and other oddities I did not try such as a lamb's head.

Jemaa el Fnaa is the market place in the center of the Marrakech medina, it's not as crowded in the day but in the evening it blossoms into a giant, open-aired restaurant packed with locals and tourists alike.

Steam and smoke rises into the night air at crowded outdoor tables surrounding the grills.

Later at night, the tourists virtually disappear and locals come out to dance, sing, tell stories and box in the square, this is what they do—this for them, not as a part of some novelty or for show.

The thing I will never forget about Moroccans are their smiles and the glimmer in their eyes.

During the day I spent a lot of time wandering the city on a mission to buy a cheap (and authentic) Berber rug and there are certain parts of the city the locals just don't seem to want you wandering into.  Vendors line the tightly packed streets selling spices, clothes, hats, baskets, jewelry, (regrettably) I believe I saw the exotic pelts of zebra and leopard.

I returned to Marrakech from the desert with a tan and despite before feeling as If I was being hassled by the vendors, I now felt largely ignored.  I think this helped my blending in at Jemaa el Fnaa at night.

The French were asking me for directions.

Many people don't know enough about American heritage to understand how it is made up (largely) of immigrants from all over the world.

Riding back to the city, I had found myself half awake in the front seat of our Toyota Land Cruiser on the open highway.  I noticed Abdel smiling and flirting beyond the windshield and ahead of us, a tiny pickup truck with a dozen or so veiled women standing in the bed returned his attention.  These women work all day on the farms and this was their ride home.  At his signal, after pointing a finger that insisted her face is not to be photographed, one of the women would pull down her veil, blushingly showing her face and smiling.  The truck jerked to a stop throwing them all towards the cab.  Unfazed they stood to dance and wave, and Abdel explained that they wore veils not for their religion but for protection from the sun during the days work.  Slowly, using his fingers, Abdel exchanged cell-phone numbers and called one of the women in the truck ahead of us.

He seemed to have a problem.

The women now were pointing and directing their interest towards me.

I guess I just have a nice smile.

I was a terrible wingman and now I was blushing.

Abdel told us that taking multiple wives in Morocco is becoming less fashionable because it's just so damn expensive.

Hard times.

Woah Momma!  …..and you really thought for a 
split second that I could make a story like that up?

This is how many people our guide hit with our Toyota Land Cruiser during the trip, three.  He also was late picking us up because he got a ticket, jumped out of the driver's seat while driving as a joke and let Andrea do power slides in it.  Our guide said this to second person he hit, you should have been using your "eyes to look what is around you and your ears to listen," and also not been standing behind my truck smoking a cigarette. 

We traveled to the seaside city called Essaouira, right beside the Atlantic Ocean, on our last day.  Essaouira is know for it's seafood, you can buy fish fresh from the marketplace and have it grilled nearby to eat.  As is customary in Morocco I got a little taste of the food from those sharing the table with me.

The English speaker who grilled my fish made it very clear in the way he spoke that he learned everything he knew about English culture from listening to Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube.

He used a lot of profanities and racial slurs and was under the impression that everyone in America smokes a lot of marijuana and does heroin.  

He also presumed that I have operated an AK-47 before.

This is the most significant event that happened to me at Essaoira;

I was sitting on the beach—and I had this weird sense of anxiety where I couldn't quite figure out if I was sitting in the right spot.  A seagull flew above me and pooped.  The poop landed on the spot directly to my right.

I learned a lot from that and consider it to be a sort of, parable.

During most of our excursion the guide had us listen to traditional Arabic music, the same CD, on repeat, we didn't know the words but by the end we sang along.  The red sun was setting in the Moroccan desert, black silhouettes of palm trees sinking past our left.  Hotels, only for some of the richest in the world on the right, now we were listening to the radio, miles outside the city, near our return, this golden light bathed the stone-faced guards in sunglasses and their fezzes.  Most of the music on this radio station was hip hop and rap, the announcer spoke in French, and suddenly there was the indistinguishable, powerful sound of the 1980's synthesizer, in English she spoke, "I want love, to know what is" as the song began and everyone was laughing.  The guide couldn't understand what was so funny and I'm not sure if we could either, this was the sort of thing that would happen to Michael or Matthew in Bar Fight, (not that it did).  Why?  I'm not sure if I can explain, it was just a feeling.  Ever since, whenever I hear the song I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner, I immediately feel as If I am in some way experiencing a dramatic sunset over melting palm trees in the Moroccan desert.  Most importantly everything written in this blog is true.  It is based on an email sent on 3/7/2010. 

The square at Djeemaa El-Fna at Night

all of these photographs were taken by Alan Michael.
Copyright 2012 Alan Michael.

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