I never thought I’d land this kind of once in a life-time opportunity—a chance to experience the real Berber culture within Morocco. I was pretty disoriented about the whole thing anyway…my roommates just told me to ask for a day off work to go on a trip to the Sahara with a tour guide they met in Essaouira. Apparently this guy was legit. I had my doubts.
Mostly what I was most unhappy about was the anticipation of a 12 hour bus ride. The 5 hour trip to Ifrane seemed like a lifetime in itself, and 12 hours seemed like an eternity. But I popped a NyQuil and before I knew it, me and my roommates (other interns from Slovakia, Lithuania and Austria) had arrived in Arfoud early Friday morning.
We met our tour guide, “Abdul du Desert” and we had a delicious Moroccan breakfast at a nearby café. As we were all eating and sipping mint tea, we all realized how calm everything was. This wasn’t Casablanca…there was no honking, yelling, or overall lack of hygiene. We could barely stop talking about it long enough to enjoy it.
Next we took an old truck to our hotel. But this wasn’t the kind of hotel you’re thinking of, rather it was like a giant sand castle in the middle of the desert. We dropped our stuff, enjoyed more mint tea with Abdul and then all ended up passing out on the mattresses. I would have guessed it was somewhere in the high 30s or maybe even 40 Celcius. We literally couldn’t move. It was so hot and the air was so dry and still, that waking up literally drenched in sweat was a major trend that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for. After waking up slowly, Abdul brought us a traditional Berber lunch: Moroccan salad and egg/meat tagine. Right after we had stuffed ourselves we all had to take another nap! Right were we had eaten. When it’s hot, there’s really not much else you can do. And it’s not an easy task.
Then came the excursion we had been waiting for: a camel ride! But not just one of those Marrakech camel rides you would pay 40 dirhams for, but rather an hour and a half ride under the setting sun straight into the dunes to our tents where we would all be sleeping that night. We all strapped on our backpacks, put on our turbans (yes, turbans) and headed out into the desert midst. And, despite what you might think camels are very gentile animals! They never spit or did anything more than make the occasional odd and very loud noise. After an hour and a half up and down dune after dune, we arrived at our camp sight. We met some of the other tourists from the hotel, a couple from Quebec! The guy was from Montreal and also a McGill alumni, and also graduated with the same degree I will be receiving, so we spent some time discussing how the program has changed, past and current professors, etc. We all lay on the mattresses and watched the stars come out one by one, identifying constellations and counting shooting stars. The Berbers eventually brought us huge chicken tagines, which we devoured followed by relaxation. I had never been camping before and I had never slept outside, and we were not in a tent but rather a circle of mattresses under the stars, in the middle of the open desert. I found it extremely difficult to go to sleep, almost as if I was tripping out or something because my mind was acting very strange. But I eventually did and woke up to the sound of our restless camels, we packed up, and took our camels back to the hotel as we watched the sun rise over the dunes.
After breakfast at the hotel, we drove to a city about an hour out, to a friend of Abdul who had made a career selling fossils, rugs, meteorites and many Berber objects like jewelry, in bulk. He spoke like 7 different languages, fluently, and he gave each one of us a traditional Berber outfit to try on. As he was getting ready to prepare tea, he pulled out a rug so that he could sit. It was love at first sight.
After having tea and discussing many things, him and his brother gave us a lesson/show of their enormous rug collection…all traditional and hand made by Berbers from all over Morocco. Each one was unique and had its own special qualities. But I still had my eye on the one from upstairs.
The bargaining was not easy. And I’m a terrible bargainer. The rug was handmade, very traditional that would last a life time. He wanted $700 (by the way, that’s DOLLARS, not dirhams). In my head I was thinking well, that’s how much I paid for my flight here…there’s no way. After what seemed like several hours, I managed to bargain it down by several hundred dollars. And I just. Bought it. I just bought the rug because it was so beautiful and it was something that I’ve always wanted. There goes this month’s pay check (almost). YOLO.
After leaving the store with a free Berber necklace and a giant hole in my wallet, we walked to Abdul’s mother’s house who had prepared the BIGGEST serving of couscous I have ever seen. It could have fed a village. But we were starving and dove face first into the mountain of couscous and chicken. Topping it with fresh melon, and though we were almost too stuffed to move, we caught a bus to the next hotel. A three-hour drive cramped with Berbers left us completely drenched in sweat by the end, but we had made it, and what a sight it was. Our hotel required some heavy stair climbing but we reached the terrace with the most breath-taking view of the high Atlas mountains and the jungle beneath it. We had three levels of terraces, and large rooms to ourselves. We were so amazed by the view as we drank (yes) more mint tea at the highest terrace with the setting sun over the mountains.
Earlier we had bought some wine (Moghrebi, my favorite Moroccan wine, because it’s the select choice of Moroccan truckers and homeless men, and apparently I’m the only one who can really appreciate its taste) and enjoyed it with our tagine dinner. After we finished, we went to the high terrace to share the wine with our Berber friends and learn how to play the drums, Berber style. It was such a good feeling being welcomed into the Berber culture, a very unique experience.
That night was rough. It was too hot for any of us to sleep and the air was so still, I actually slept outside like a dog, under the stars, since it was 10 degrees cooler outside somehow than in our rooms. The next morning we woke early, packed a pic nik and headed out on a hike to the gorges. Through fields and forests we trekked until we hit the gorges, where there were many tourists alongside Moroccans enjoying the cool water source that ran throughout the mountains. Our plan was to climb to the top, but the heat was too overcoming that we decided to pic nik in the shade by the water, Moroccan salad and fresh melon. Afterwards we grabbed a van back to the hotel, passed out in the living room from exhaustion and spent time all together. We of course signed the guestbook, with nothing but good things to say.
As it was Sunday night, we packed our bags and headed out for our 8:30 bus back to Casablanca. We said goodbye to Abdul, I popped another NyQuil and passed out for most of the ride. Thank god. Only we arrived to Casa at about 7:20. I had work at 8 and I lived across town. So I hailed a cab, ran into the apartment, barely showered and ran to work. Only to find that no one was there because they had moved the time back one hour to accommodate for Ramadan that begins this week. Awesome.
I can honestly say I can now leave Morocco feeling satisfied that I successfully received a perfect Moroccan experience. It was so amazing to really dive into the Berber culture and surrounding environment, not from a tour bus or a hotel window but really living it, genuinely. The tour was planned and executed perfectly, and all of the people we met were extremely kind and hospitable. It was kind of a leap of faith and I was nervous about it, but it really exceeded my expectations. I recommend these kinds of trips to young travelers seeking great adventure! Now it’s back to work in Casablanca, anticipating my next weekend trip ☺