Fantasy Versus Reality of Travel
As the winds from the Erg Chebbi dunes spit sand in every direction. I rocked back and forth on a camel squinting to see the blotted out sun. With my head swaddled in a gauze of cotton, the only sounds were the wind, the camel’s breath and the footsteps of my guide as we headed into nothingness.
I was on a solo trek in Morocco without the guide of Siri, without the use of cell service and without the sound of anything but the voices in my head. It was once said, “The desert shatters the soul’s arrogance and leaves the body and soul crying out in thirst and hunger. In the desert, we trust God or die.” This trek wasn’t that dramatic, but the silent, infinite stretch of sand toward our Berber camp was intimate and intimidating. As we got deeper into the desert it drew out my fears. Would we be lost? How much longer? And why was I so uncomfortable with the sheer silence of this journey?
A trek in the desert leaves you alone with your thoughts, swallows you up and makes you an anonymous captive of its will. I imagined the bones of unknown and undiscovered men were swallowed up by this barren land–its secrets buried forever as quickly as the sea capsizes a boat. I thought of the un-etched history of this land that dozens of generations had tread before me. And my thoughts turned to my son like a tongue to a broken tooth as I experience all of these things. His fearless spirit is always with me and was on that day.
Of course, my time cocooned in the sandstorm also brought funny thoughts. Note to self, I shouldn’t have worn a thong while riding a camel in a sandstorm. I should have zip locked my incredibly expensive camera because it still crackles when I focus to this day.
Just when I was really getting into the rhythm of plowing through this pristine sand, the signs of urbanites were at my feet. Well, the camel’s feet to be accurate. Litter. Spent water bottles dotted portions of the path like a graveyard of Western filth. I’m guessing people saw this as a large kitty litter box. But onward I went onto what would be a peaceful rest after a lot of breakneck travel.
It was near the end of a 10-day trip to Morocco where I began with a group of 16 people and went solo through the desert for the 4 days. The difference between the two experiences was remarkable.
When we entered into Tangier by boat, we all had each other for company. The winding medinas in Fés are infamous for getting lost. They were built that way to trap invading marauders from escaping. So being led through the medinas by a guide is imperative. Having people to go shopping with was a bonus.
After leaving Fés, we snaked our way through Chefchaoen, ancient Roman ruins, Casablanca (a disappointment) and onto Marrakech, a fabled city that is bursting with life.
Morocco conjures up exotic images of fez-capped men wearing flowing Kaftans or Gandoras. It is walking through busy medinas where the world’s most exotic foods and intricate crafts are up for bid. In my mind it was where Casablanca meets Lawrence of Arabia—all of that imagery was fueled by slick ads, and over-romanticized blogs with whitewashed stories to package “the dream.” Some of that is true, but no trip is ever as romantic as we picture. And no images that clutter our digital-soaked world will paint the real picture.
Through all of those cities, I hadn’t made one “local travel connection.” It wasn’t the language barrier, although boning up on my French would have helped. There’s a travel tip. I had determined that Moroccans were simply unfriendly and judgmental of Westerners.
Even though I made great connections with the people I traveled with and am still in touch with them, traveling in a group has its own dynamics. More on that later. But what brought me here was my unquenchable curiosity of culture and a search for untainted areas that are harder to find in this traveler saturated world.
Winding Through Medinas
A visit to the legendary gritty and colorful leather tanneries in Fés is a steep walk up a narrow stairway. At the top, you are met by the pungent smell of sulfur. It’s not just the sulfur, but a mix of wet animal hide soaking in cow’s urine to remove the fat and hair before being placed in a bath of pigeon excrement to soften it. Yes. Deal with that image the next time you wear leather. It’s so harsh they give you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose.
There were other not so nice experiences. There was the time I had that very weird massage in Fés where I lay naked in full sunlight surrounded by mirrors with a woman in an overflowing pushup bra rubbing me with oil. Oddly, I was the only female massage client. There was the toe-maiming pedicure. And in every city and town, outdoor eateries were lined with only men, as if women aren’t allowed to dine out.
The medinas are filled with the smell of wonderful smoking meat, fresh ground spices of cinnamon, curry powder, cardamom, and rosemary. There are freshly baked bread at one turn and then rotting fish heads left for feral cats at another. There’s the unfortunate waft of sewage, and animals at times. There is a visual feast with woodcarvers shaping centuries-old Moorish patterns and metal workers etching intricate designs. You’ll see and smell donkeys loaded up with satchels and some kind and sweet cheese covered with bees. There are strange foods like a thin membrane of dough stretched over a bulbous heated surface. Beautiful pierced metal lanterns that twinkle and the pungent smell of freshly of indigo died cloth hanging out to dry.
Chefchaoen (the blue city) was visually stunning and I managed to break from the pack and meander through the street, finding a celebration of kids on school break who coated each other in colored powder. Women in hijabs and full burkas shied from my camera with some hissing at me, only to find out later that I was the rude traveler who didn’t realize that many Muslim women do not believe in this.
We left the blue city and traveled to the fabled city of Casablanca, I was excited. I pictured men with the pillbox caps and beautiful white Moorish gabled architecture. Instead, it was a crowded, non-descript city of boxy buildings with an industrialized bay with no coastline. There was little to do there, but I did find the restaurant that was a facsimile of the one in the movie “Casablanca.” Rick’s Café, however, has a wait and they want a certain crowd. Our tourist jean-clad clan was told during the day that they had no reservations for that evening. We came at night all dressed up and they let a select group of us in while the others were turned away.
Saying goodbye to my little conclave that gave me great company I met up with my private tour guide, a wiry Moroccan man in his 20s with a large smile that exposed a gray front tooth and black eyes that sparkled.
Heading toward the Atlas Mountains, the desert odyssey would help me get to know more about Muslims and Moroccans. My very brassy language that has been shaped by working in newsrooms and then for the police has taken the polish off of my diplomacy. Cussing was a bit of a shock to my guide and so was my directness. But most tour guides chuckle at Americans and are used to us. I asked about home life, marriage and the life of a Bedouin. He told me that Moroccan men are allowed to marry up to four women. “How does that work? Do you have all of the wives in your bed at the same time?” I asked.
“What? No! What would I do with four women at one time?” he said, telling me that it would be difficult to make the others feel loved at the same time.
I laughed. “Well, I’ll let an American man fill you in on that one.” He looked at me bewildered and we left it at that. I learned he didn’t have the skewed view of women that a lot of men in the Western world do because porn is strictly forbidden. The Moroccan government also monitors and censors the Internet. So for all of the debate over the ills of porn, I rest my case. You need only to look at how men behave when they aren’t constantly exposed to over-sexualized women with perfect bodies. In actuality, they like women there to have a little meat on their bones. With 15 extra pounds on me at the time, the men there found me attractive apparently, while I was incredibly self-critical over the extra weight.
Every society, however, has good and bad and Morocco is no different. No one can outwardly criticize the government, not exactly a Democracy. There are laws that govern moral behavior. No Moroccan couple can rent a hotel room without proof of marriage. And there have been stories of men engaging in a gay relationship being thrown in prison. So there’s that.
But the Moroccan people are good people with a storied history that starts as Nomads influenced by Egypt, then Rome, then Arabia, Spain, and France—in that order. But it was the Arabs that had the largest effect on the people, converting them to Islam in the 7thCentury. Their Muslim faith dictates that they must do good. Sadly most Muslims are marred by the acts of a few extremists when the term “Muslim extremist” is an oxymoron—the two can’t co-exist. At the heart of their religion is charity one of its five pillars. And those who I met were just that.
The journey into the desert led me to that Berber camp just before nightfall where my guide and the camp cat greeted me. It’s amazed how these resourceful Nomads of Northern Africa have survived through time by staying together. It is no wonder they call themselves Amazigh. It means free man.
After a day of navigating through the harshest environment, the Berbers circle around the fire, sing, dance and eat. They drink mint tea that is boiling hot (which purifies the water) with mint (which adds as an antiseptic). Their camel hair tents are festooned with hand-woven rugs. Everything has its purpose, yet it’s all that is needed. But the biggest thing they carry is their generosity.
Staring up at the 3-D night sky in this world without walls, my perspective on life was recalibrated. The noise of the modern world is deafening and desert life is clarifying. We sipped wine under the stars that guided generations of Nomads across the desert. I dug my feet into the sand, now cool, and thought of the story of their people.
In the end, travel is truth. It is the world’s university that guides us through the path of history. Border becomes imaginary. Politics are irrelevant and it becomes about people and that human connection that we all share.
As Westerners search for meaning and live in our boxed worlds, where digital connections replace human contact—somewhere out there under the night sky are the Berbers or “free men” living a meager life. They are richer than most of us.