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And then it all went wrong

June 22, 2014

So much has gone wrong with this leg of the trip that by the time my driver hit and likely killed a donkey crossing the road to Chefchaouen, I could practically sleep through it.


I’m not saying the trip’s been bad, and once it was clear that the only life in real jeopardy was the donkeys there have been real moments of magic, but


It started well enough after a night in the gorges. We awoke after the big rainfall with the earth smelling fresh and the air clean. I had breakfast with Lucia and Sang, two british climbers I’d met the night before, as they headed off to test their mettle on the cliffs surrounding the gorge (no small feat as they were as much dirt as rock and the rain had loosened everything).


They headed off and Ali, – who was fully decked out in Bedouin style, long caftan and turban included – and hiked through the gorge. It was stunning with high cliffs surrounding a small trail along the water. Towards the end of the trail we spotted Lucia and Sang slowly making their way up the rock face. We waved and cheered and headed back to the car for the drive to the Sahara.


There are police check points frequently along the road, so I didn’t think twice when we got pulled over. We have to get out of the car, Ali said. OK – I said reaching for my door. As I opened it, Ali and two police officers all started yelling at me in Arabic. Oh, right. Ali’s “we” means “me.”  I will never get the hang of that.


After it all got sorted, we headed toward Erhfout where we would head into the desert. “My mother lives in Erhout and my brother. We go there.” Ali said. This time he meant both of us. For lunch. This is my version of hell and I’d thought I’d gotten out of it when, in Ourzazate I had demurred from dinner with his wife.


There is a romantic, and naive notion that there is some greater form of hospitality at play in poor countries with tea cultures. There is not. It is a lovely thing to invite someone to your home and share tea, and the tea exchange is always poetic. But make no mistake, it is an exchange based on tradition and commerce, not a great regard for you as the guest. Not to say there isn’t hospitality at play, of course there is. But there are great acts of hospitality and kindness in every culture, and it means more, I think, when it is completely random. My step-father once brought an African man he’d met on a plane to spend the night in our home in Auburn, Maine, when he was mistakenly booked there instead of his intended destination of Auburn Alabama. (It was the 70s). I think that is as great an act of kindness as the tea I’ve shared with Sherpas in the Mountains or gauchos in South America. More so, perhaps, because there was no tip to my step dad when it deposited the man safely at the airport the next morning, nor would he have accepted one.


Anyway – as we headed towards Ali’s childhood home, he told me it was tradition, as a guest,  to bring sugar to a home. We stopped at a small store on the edge of town and Ali pointed out blocks of sugar the approximate size and shape of an industrial sized roll of string. I picked one up and brought it to the counter. Ali added three more and several handfuls of candy bars. “For the children,” he said. $40 of diabetes later we headed off. Ali’s mother welcomed me into the home and I met a parade of relatives – my brother, my brother’s wife, my other brother’s wife…and more children than I could count.


Ali deposited me in the back with the women while he sat in the front room with the men. In both rooms there was animated talk in Arabic, but no English. The cous cous came in a large terra cotta pan set in the center of the table. Everyone dipped there spoons in to the grain and root vegetables. It was delicious.  Still, as I sat there awkwardly the women would on occasion point towards me saying “americain”, and smile, laugh or shake their heads. No matter what, my paranoia was in full bloom. When we left there were hand shakes and hugs. I handed Ali some money and said “for your mother,” to which he replied “maybe a bit more.”


FInally we headed off into the desert, Driving into the desolate landscape and then hiking for a long time. As we went we passed nomad tents and desolate wells. Ali pointed out mirages in the distance – shimmery water that wasn’t. The hard flat sand slowly turned red and so soft that every step was an effort as your feet suck deeply. We  arrived at the campsite and were greeted with the site of camels in their circle formatation and a small collection of tents with deep red and orange rugs covering the ground. Our beds were mad of think blannets covering even thicker pads and as comfortable as any ground sleeping I’ve done.  The tests got quite hot and Ali pulled my pad outside onto the soft sand. I slept under the huge star filled sky and it was bliss.


In the morning I readied myself for a long day on the camels when Ali said “We think it would be good to visit a village to day and see the lake.” Camels tonight. We? Who thinks that. Oh, right. We is just Ali. But a village and the lake sounded good. “Bring your swimming suit.” Said Ali. My excitement about swimming in a lake in the middle of the desert was beyond measure.


We hiked back to the four by four and jumped in. Window open we sped through the rocky sand. I felt a bit like a teenager driving on the beach and a bit like I’d stepped out of a movie. We stopped for tea with nomads in their makeshift tent – a canvas stretched out on branches, ripped foam pads on the ground, one housing a small boy with a coloring book, and a donkey wandering nearby. The boy jumped up when we arrived, pupped into a mud hut next to the tent and out with an elegant silver tray of tea. I caught a glimpse of a woman from the back but Ali told me she must remain in the “kitchen” and the boy, should couldn’t have been 6, would be our host .

From their we drove to a terra cotta mine and climbed the short way to the top to look down into the wells that worked the clay to create the many tajines we’d seen. The day was going well.


We stopped at the desert’s version of a grand hotel where a boy of about 12 brought me unwanted tea. Ali disappeared as the boy practiced his english with me. Are you in school I asked. No No. He said. My sister is married. It would be a shame to my family if I stayed in school. Shut up, shut up, shut up – I told the voices in my head. After handing him a tip, Ali said, he is my cousin explaining why we’d stopped there.


Would you like to visit a village and then to the lake? Ali asked. Oh, yes said I. I don’t want to shop, but I’d love to see the village. “Is no obligation to shop,” Ali responded “but these people, they have nothing.” I just smiled wanly .


We stopped at Nomad Depot and Ali announced, “the village.” It was more of a Bedouin version of a department store. One room full of silver, another caftans, a third rugs. Oh no thank you. I said over and over again. “Just for looking, no obligation.” they replied over and over. Finally I picked out a few beads and trinkets, and handed it to the named in charge. He calculated a bit and said 1200 durham. That’s like $120 for what I had calculated couldn’t be more than $20 in one of NY’s more expensive trinket shops. Oh, no no, I replied. Too much. But I’d made the cardinal mistake of letting him set the negotiating point. I tried to demure from buying at all and looked at Ali pleadingly for help. “they have nothing.” he said. THat is not too much. I ended up paying nearly more than $40 mostly just to get out of there.


Please don’t take me to any more store! I demanded of Ali after we’d left. He looked wounded and said he didn’t’ understand. And of course, I was more mad at me than him, but I tried to explain that I needed him to help me from getting taken, not to help the nomads, but of course, I was wrong. It was right that he helped his countrymen.


We headed to the lake and my hopes rose.  Up a small hill, Ali said, get your camera ready. And there it was. A crater. “100 million years ago, this was a lake and the giraffe and the elephant and the dinosaurs would drink from it.” Now of course it was as dry as the rest of the Sahara. I asked Ali why I needed a bathing suit for this and he said, oh for the hotel pool.


From the lake we headed to lunch at another hotel, after which Ali brought me to a lovely pool to wait out the sun. Realizing I was low on sunscreen, I was  one of those women covered head to toe in hats and scarves to avoid the strong sun, but I had a nice time. An Italian couple and their daughter who are sharing our campsite were there as well. The daughter frolicking joyfully in the pool.


Finally it was time for the camels. The Italians and I headed to them – I was second camel, so third to get on. They are seated when you take their backs and rise with a jerk, but once they are standing it’s a fairly smooth ride. Easier than a horse. We climber into the dunes for about an hour and disembarked to watch the sun set. Glorious does not begin to explain it. And with our cameleers in turbaned and the camels against the sand and glow from the sun, it felt a bit biblical. After the sunset, we were given the option to take the camels back two the hotel where we’d left our drivers or back to the camps. We all agreed to go all the way back to the camps.


The two cameleers walked up front talking and making calls on their cell phones. The group of us, the Italian mom, me, dad, and daughter, focused on our rides and the landscape around us.  Shortly after we’d left the soft sand for the hard rocky terrain there was a squeal from the back and the Bella, the girl, began to scream. He camel leaped and lurched and as though in slow motion, we watched her cling desperately and eventually to fall off. We knew by the way she landed her wrists were broken.  Her camel, umped and pulled at his bit as the cameleers ran trying to calm him. All the camels were tied together so he pulled us and agitated our camels as well. THe dad’s camel jumped and jerked in anger and we watched in horror as he fell too. Landing unconscious. At that point it became clear we were all going to go and I tired to ready myself for the fall. How could I fall with the least damage. The cameleers released the back two, now riderless camels and one sat down quietly, the other sped off into the desert, desperate cameleer running after him, his turban unravelling along the way. “get me down!” screamed the mother. And they were finally able to let her off and she rand to her now awake, but confused husband. I took the crying girl in my arms, careful of her awkwardly dangling wrists.


We need a doctor! we cried needlessly. The cameleer left with us, was calling on his phone and quickly we saw a car approaching. Ali got out and began an amateur healing. “Can you do this?” he asked lifting his arms over his head. “just take them to a doctor.” I said. What about you? He asked. I’ll be fine, just take them to a doctor.


He drove off with them and I was left alone with three camels and one cameleer. The other I could see in the distance zig zagging the dunes after the rogue camel. It would have been quite funny.


Reluctantly, I got back on a camel and we headed silently back to my camp. Where I went to my tent to wait for information.


The next morning we learned all was well and Ali and I headed to Fez.


I’ll tell you about the Donkey tomorrow.

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One Comment
  1. E Martin permalink

    Great stories! This is your best trip. This and Nepal. Love it!! So happy!

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