On the Road to Morocco
Many of our family vacations are best remembered through a glass darkly, years after the fact, when the family album fails to remind us of the moments best forgotten. But every once in a while, one of our family vacations actually bears fruit--the sweet variety, not an unripe tropical specimen. In March, we flung caution to the wind and decided to trek through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, near the Algerian border. Three planes and 24 hours after leaving Boston, we ended up in the streets of Marrakech, trailing the donkey cart that held our luggage through the narrow streets of the old city on the way to our riad, a small hotel that was once a private home.
I am not one to tour palaces and other architectural monuments--just give me something good (and unusual) to eat. This, of course, is no mean feat when you are traveling with young children and local guides who prefer to steer their clients to the most European eateries. (Yes, you can order spaghetti Bolognese and pizza in a tourist café fronting the major plaza in the old city.) But Marrakech did eventually come through in the food department. Fresh-squeezed local oranges; yogurt lightly sweetened with rose water; the local flatbreads; coconut cookies; lamb tagine with fresh almonds; skewers of ground, spiced lamb; and pastilla, a thick pancake-style pastry filled with ground meat, spices, and nuts.
The next day we piled into two Land Rovers and headed southeast, through the High Atlas and down toward Ouarzazate. By the afternoon, we had left the paved road behind and were on a track that wound around old mud and wattle towns built into the sides of bleak mountains, with serpentine river valleys, lush and green, below. (Locals take the bus to the end of the line, where they switch to donkeys. The animals are arranged in a stand much like taxis.) The day is a confused memory of fiercely handsome Berber children, goatherds and shepherds, and donkeys fitted out with metal "roof racks" that let them transport huge loads of forage.
The next day, at the tail end of sunset, we finally made our way into the desert and to our campsite. El Hussein, the sprightly 72-year-old camel driver, was waiting (he had walked three days to meet us) along with his four camels. (As warm-blooded creatures go, by the way, camels are quite intelligent. They drool rather than spit, their legs fold up like lawn chairs when they sit, they enjoy a good rub behind the ears, and their huge feet spread out like yeast dough as they plop them on the sand.) The next morning, after a breakfast of flatbread, oranges, and coffee, we set out over the dunes, mostly walking, with rest periods taken on camelback.
The desert is not just a sandbox. The landscape varies wildly from the classic dunes of Lawrence of Arabia to towering black mountains, parched white lakebeds, scrub, thousands of small white and blue flowers (which, owing to my inaccurate translation of our guide's conversational French, I erroneously call "Monkey's Onion"), and seas of rock and thorn. Far on a mountainside, we see dozens of goats grazing and a goatherd standing still in a dark djellaba (robe) on top of a ridge. Two young boys cross our path in the middle of nowhere and stop to chat. We come across an abandoned Berber beehive oven used to make bread. (The bread is cooked over coals on top of a perforated metal shelf.)
That evening, I sit on the top of the largest dune near our campsite and watch the sun dissolve into a far haze. On the next peak, a man is kneeling and praying to Allah. A small village is visible off to the east, toward Algeria. I count 17 hand-sketched trees in and around the swirl of dunes. I can hear the murmur of the local Berber dialect spoken by the cook, Hussein, and our guide, Muhammed, punctuated by exuberant expressions of "Inshallah." An hour passes, the sun is ebbing, and I sense that I am sitting above a vast pool of time, as if the days and weeks have fled the rest of the world, swirling to a stop on this flat sun-drenched landscape where there are no shadows. I was told that the Berbers are still a nomadic people. How else does one live in this timeless landscape?
And then, on the third day, it happens. The simple, well-prepared food. The loose robes and headdresses. The hours of walking and storytelling. The front-and-back rhythm of the camels. The hot, sweet mint tea. The intense flavor of a cool, sliced orange after lunch. There is so little here that each thing becomes important. Each gesture, each bite of food, and each sip of water matters. A fig, a date, a handful of nuts . . . we learn to enjoy the small things.
We make our way to Fez, a city more cosmopolitan than Marrakech. We spend a day walking the bazaar and discover live snails, a camel's head, brightly colored vats of soap, dyed silk, fruit, mint, fish, live poultry, leather goods, brass and copper pots, sweets, street food, hole-in-the-wall bakeries . . . the senses are overwhelmed. We depart before sunrise, hefting duffel bags through dark, narrow streets. I leave with the taste of perfumed oranges, rose water, mint, almonds, saffron, preserved lemon, cinnamon, cumin, and coconut still lively on the tongue. But it's the vast, unfiltered memory of the desert that beckons, as if I were leaving home for a foreign land. The sun is rising, but, in my mind's eye, it is sinking, there is a call to prayer, men in hooded djellabas face Mecca, and there is finally time to consider every grain of sand.