Misery in the Moroccan Sahara


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If ever you’ve found yourself thinking that a long-term traveler’s life is filled with nothing but glamor and fun, this is a post you might find comforting in a Schadenfreude-kind of way. I certainly am not one to complain about the life of a traveler, but aside from the somewhat boring days I’ve had on the road due to work or sheer exhaustion, I’ve also had a couple of downright terrible experiences. My trip out to the Sahara Desert in Morocco was one of them.

I should have known better… booking tours through a hotel is just a bad idea in general, for reasons I will go into in another post on tour buses versus independent travel. I thought this might be fun, since the suggestion came from my charming little riad right outside Marrakesh’s famous medina. The owner of my riad was friendly and seemed genuine in wanting me to have the best possible experience in Morocco. So he pointed to a board with various options and, after my fantastic experience in Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, it seemed like a no-brainer.

I won’t go through every detail of my two days of boredom, but I will say this: I absolutely hate the soulless feel of sitting in an air-conditioned van, with no control over my own exploration and merely being herded like cattle from one commission-fetching shopping (ahem, “picture-taking”) stop after another under the guise of adventure. The drive from Marrakesh to the desert would probably take about 5-6 hours, were it not for the fact that our driver was very eager to get us out of the van every time we passed a shop of some sort.

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Forced side-of-the-road shopping. Oh joy.

Of course, with every stop as an opportunity to get out and take pictures, three of the most obnoxious guys I’ve ever met saw it as a great chance to get at least 50 shots of themselves: a few in front of one rock in sitting pose; a few more in front of another rock with standing pose; back to the first rock for some jumping poses; back to the other rock for a few more sitting poses. By 9 a.m. I was already well aware that it was going to be a long, long day.

My boredom was at least temporarily broken up by a quick visit to the fortified village of Aït Benhaddou nestled in the Atlas Mountains near the town of Ouarzazate, which I found pretty interesting. This Unesco World Heritage site is the location of a number of well known film shoots, including The Jewel of the Nile, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and Gladiator, to name a few. The guide we were given there, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, was friendly and refrained from any attempts to sell us things. He even gave us a good 20 minutes to walk around on our own, an opportunity I happily took to lose the crowds.

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The one and only Moroccan guide I liked – informative, didn’t try to sell me anything and refrained from inappropriate advances

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Finally able to ditch the group and have some me-time

After what can only be described as a lackluster lunch, we hit the road for more shopping – um, I mean picture-taking – stops. About 80 more photos for each of the obnoxious guys, this time with different rocks to photograph themselves in front of. By the time we arrived at the spot where we would get on the camels and spend another two hours sitting, we were rushed out of the van without a moment to spare. Suddenly 14 hours of poking along had jolted into warp-speed by some very angry Bedouins who just couldn’t understand what had taken so long. I hear ya, Bedouins, I hear ya.

And, of course, by the time we reached our camels, the sun had gone down. This meant we would get to ride through the Sahara desert, the very thing we came to see, in the dark. At least I’ll see it in the morning, I thought.

And though I was pretty damn cranky at this point, I was still able to handle the boredom and frustration with a reasonable amount of grace. Where I very nearly lost my sh*t, however, was the point at which I got into the Sahara Desert and asked for a water, to be told there was none available. If you find yourself asking “why wouldn’t you bring water into the Sahara Desert, Melissa?”, well, I did have half a bottle left over from the van ride, but I was told not to buy more since it would be provided at the camp. Scarves are a must due to the searing desert sun, our van driver warned us at least three times a mere 15 minutes before sundown. But water? No need. And it seemed to make sense – I didn’t want to needlessly load up my camel with extra weight if the camp had water anyway.

It’s not just that we weren’t given free water, even when the Bedouins sat us down and provided dinner. (The look I got when I asked for a drink with my meal was priceless – you would think I had just asked this Muslim man for some spare ribs, a bottle of whiskey to wash them down and a porn movie to top the evening off.) The problem is that we weren’t even given an option to purchase any water. My first and incessant thought throughout the night was, to put it calmly, ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

Of course, they did have enough water to fill their sheesha pipes. Priorities.

I was lucky enough that two of my fellow passengers, Mario and Leila, offered to share what they had left of their water, which was also very little. We rationed what we had and took comfort in the knowledge that it was nighttime and we were only a couple hours’ ride from civilization, provided we didn’t get lost in the world’s largest desert…

The next morning I awoke just before dawn to get some good golden-hour photos. It was my first glimpse of this majestic landscape. Just my camera and me, and it was absolute bliss. For about five minutes, anyway, after which I was shouted at by a Bedouin for daring to enjoy myself when breakfast – a piece of bread – was being served. I’ll take my piece of bread later, I informed him. I eat breakfast more than 300 times a year, and I see the Sahara once in my life. I plan on getting some pictures.

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Sunrise in the desert

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My five minutes of desert bliss

This worked until about five minutes later, when the same Bedouin came over again, this time demanding that I come to breakfast. It wasn’t until this nasty, awful man grabbed me and lunged his disgusting lips towards my face not once, but twice, that I learned of his ulterior motives in attempting to lure me into the breakfast tent. It turns out he had already tried to kiss Leila, a scene Mario had accidentally got on video when he set up his camera on a tripod and walked away. I narrowly escaped the Bedouin’s lips making contact with mine by turning my head. “I’ll come to visit you in America”, he told me. “No you definitely won’t”, I replied.

I'd rather make out with this guy.

Hey, awful Bedouin guide, I’d rather make out with this guy.

Not long after that, still groggy from just barely having woken up, we were rushed back onto the camels so we could get back to the van for another full day full of opportunities to overpay for cheap, unauthentic carpets and other random crap none of us wanted. Although not before another Bedouin stuck his hand out demanding a tip. I resisted the urge to tell him where he and his friends could shove said tip, instead opting for the more diplomatic option of ignoring the guy and walking away. And on the way home, we were treated to (read: severely annoyed by) a blasting of Indian music and dancing by the three ever-obnoxious selfie-obsessed guys. In a cramped van moving 60 miles an hour down the freeway, nonetheless.

In the end, most of the trip could be chalked up to annoyances making for a less than perfect excursion. I can usually go with the flow, even when things aren’t going as swimmingly as I’d like. What left me absolutely incensed, however, was that a company would instruct 25 tourists not to buy water, then lead them into the Sahara Desert overnight and not offer any for purchase, coupled with a morning of very inappropriate harassment from a man in whose hands our lives are entrusted. I wish I had nice things to say about the people of Morocco, but when it came to far too many of the men I encountered (with a few exceptions), it was a destination full of uncomfortable advances, sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior and comments – more so than any other country I’ve visited. And all this, despite the fact that I was covered from neck to foot even in the unforgiving June Moroccan heat.

I did have some great experiences in the country, particularly in Chefchaouen, and I loved the beautifully decorated riads, but for the most part it’s not a place I’m itching to return to. If you’ve been to Morocco, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those of any female travelers out there.

Categories: AfricaTags: , , , , , , , , ,

1 comment

  1. I’ve always wanted to visit Morroco.

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