Sahara Desert Trip Part I: Hot Beer, Cold Women

I got back an hour or so ago from a trip to the far south east of Morocco: a town called Merzouga bordering the Sahara desert.

We left friday afternoon. I packed plenty of water but, foolishly, little food. A hoagie or something would have been excellent for the trip down. After about 5 hours of driving in a chartered minibus (there were 14 of us altogether) we stopped in a small town for lunch. We had a meat tajine, but unlike Fes where such things are made with ground meat, it was made with cubed meat, sort of like beef stew. It was pretty good. We went to a little shop across the street so that some folks could buy scarves, which were reasonably priced. Everything else we asked about, however, was priced out of all reason. As I’ve mentioned before, though, I don’t mind that. I understand that there’s a tax on being a foreigner here, and it’s usually a relatively minot amount. Also, for some reason, the prices were in Euros.

After driving for another hour, we stopped at our hotel. It was probably the nicest place in which I have ever stayed. It catered to European tourists and the only word I can think of to describe it is lavish. It was sort of like disneyworld with no rides, if that helps. We sat about by the pool for a while for a few pre-dinner beers. The bartender, for some reason, gave me 2 euros as change, which is more or less useless here in Fes. While we sat, some performers began playing traditional Moroccan music (or, I suspect, what they think Europeans think traditional Moroccan music is) to accompany belly dancers. I didn’t know they had that here, but apparently in border regions with some Algerian influence, it’s not uncommon.

So we’re sitting there, listening to the music and telling various bragadocios and drinking various beers, when the musicians get up and come over to our little table. Nothing wrong with that. However, the belly dancers decided, against all logic, that I was the richest, or the hunkiest, guy at the table, and proceeded to dance within two inches of me. Now, I’m not a brave person, or a smart person, or even much of a person at all, but this was the most uncomfortable I’ve been so far in Morocco. When I bought a fez from the angriest man in the Medina, it was an easy, relaxed time compared to this. One moment I’m a-having a beer, and the next, I’m being deafened by thundering drums while strange women on all sides of me have narrowly controlled seizures. If it had gone on for another minute or so, I would probably have panicked and turned over the table trying to get away.

Instead, the woman nearer to me, who had her hands pressed together as if she were praying, popped them open. Inside was a 20 Dirham bill. She said something quiet in French, and when I just stared at her with wild and confused eyes, she popped her hands shut and the bill disappeared. Asking for a tip? Selling me the drugs (or something else)? I have no idea. But my reluctance to engage her quickly shifted their attention to another table and left me alone. For the rest of the day I was jumpy, thinking that jingling hookers were going to drop out of the sky and accost me.

Dinner was fantastic, but staying at this place made me sort of uncomfortable. Me and my mates were staying in the absolute lap of luxury, and I’m sure 1000 feet outside the gate, someone was surviving on $1 a day in utter poverty.  I have trouble justifying to myself staying in luxury when the town around me is dirt poor. I guess it would be different if millionaires were waiting the tables. Then I’d enjoy myself unconditionally. And be kind of a jerk about it.

At dinner, the musicians were back, and I made accidental eye contact with a belly dancer. Thus began an intense 2-minute ballet as I used tables and people standing around as chaff to avoid them. I fled. The next day we woke up and… sat around for 5 hours. After breakfast, we just had like half a day to kill. I finished the First Part of Henry the Fourth and got a bit into the second. I should also mentioned that a waiter said hello to me in French, and I responded in Arabic and asked him how his day was, and he was so surprised that he just sputtered words for a moment.

Then, it was 2 hours to our hotel. We had lunch somewhere, I think, though I don’t really remember where, and travelled south. At first, we passed plenty of little towns that made one thing clear to me: this is the place for a cement chemist. Every single building is made entirely out of cement. We also passed the occasional shepard in a tent or home made of wood and garbage.

After getting through inhabited areas, we travelled through a landscape more reminiscent of the moon than the earth. Imagine a completely flat plain that extends to mountains at the horizon, covered in a mix of sand and football-sized jet-black rocks. It was surreal, beyond surreal.

Merzouga is a strip of a town huddling a strip of trees on one side and the Sahara on the other. It seems to be made mostly of hotels. We didn’t stay in ours: we just dropped off non-essential supplies (I removed all but my cold-weather clothes, water, and scotch) and locked the room. Then, it was out for more waiting in a tent. I’m not sure what the deal with all the time to kill was, and you’ll see why it seems strange to me in a minute.

I am tired and hungry and my ass hurts from the Camel. I’m off to eat. More later.

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