Friday, December 9, 2016

The Tomatoes

Twenty minutes had passed before I returned to our tent. The windchill must have been in the forties, but my stomach was ailing or I would have stayed out a bit longer. I skipped breakfast knowing it wouldn't stay down. I must have slept another hour, maybe two. I probably salvaged the day because of it.

We were rushed out of the camp. Our driver was there at 9am, and our time in the desert was over. I had maybe gotten a half hour out of it between the stars and the sunrise, and while some of that was due to being sick, I think for what we paid we should have been permitted to spend more time there. 

But it was all worth it, the driving, the rushing, even the puking.

We hopped into the 4X4 and headed back to civilization, daylight revealing to us what we had missed going to the camp. We weren't sure what was in store for us - we only knew we would be staying in a hotel in a city called Ouarzazate, or as Chris called it, Where's it at. Ouarzazate is pretty much the Hollywood of Morocco, with the bulk of its population involved in the surprisingly robust film industry of Morocco. Before I had planned this trip, I hadn't known how much Hollywood relies on Morocco - if there is desert in a film, there's a good chance some of it was filmed in Morocco, especially if it involves a Bible story.

The dunes looked like this from the bumpy car:

Leaving the Sahara looked like this:

We reached civilization:

I thought the trip to Ouarzazate would be relatively short in comparison to the previous day's journey. I was wrong. We drove and drove and drove, past oases of palm forests and pink Berber villages, past goats and sheep and donkey carts, past desert and rocks and around winding mountain roads, yet I saw little of it that morning, because I slept.

It wasn't a choice. My body was forcing me to sleep as a defense against the (self-diagnosed) salmonella poisoning. I must have been asleep for an hour, mouth open, drooling, probably snoring. When I woke up I was surprised to discover that I had slept. I worried I had missed a lot, but the oases were still there, and the Berber villages, and the rocks, so I didn't feel too bad about missing out. What I missed look like this:

Ilias, our driver who looks like Alex Rodriguez and more than once I almost called him Alex, stopped for a "panoramic" view. I welcomed the stop. The view was quite impressive.

Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to enjoy it. 

Where you from where you from Espanol? English? 

I had seen the camels. I had tried to stay away from them. But we were pulled into it anyway. They wrapped our heads in Berber dress and grabbed my camera for pictures. You can tell from our faces how thrilled we were, both of us not feeling well and both weary of these tourist hounds. 


One of the camels was named Jimmy Hendrix. That was pretty funny. The guys said we could have the headdress, a "gift" to us. We tried to give them back. No, you keep it. Gift. 

For fifteen bucks, of course. 

We shoved the cloths back into their hands and said no thank you and tried to get to the car. I only had a ten dirham coin ($1) and big bills so I handed one man the coin.

"This is nothing. I have family."

It's the standard refrain. Instead of being thankful, they insult you by saying, "This is nothing" while demanding more.

I took my coin back. "Fine, if it is nothing I will keep it."

Then they swarmed us, and we had trouble getting into the car. I gave the coin back and shut the car door.

Now, if you've been following our trip, you know that we have been irritated by this behavior. But it is more complicated than simple harassment. You see, Morocco is a poor country. And that is complicated, too. The country ranks 61st in the world in nominal GDP (58th PPP), which is in the top third, but a lot of that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. 

Morocco has undertaken extensive economic reform in the last two decades, which has driven economic growth and has drawn praise from Western capitalist elites. But that growth is only benefiting business elites. The number of Moroccans worth more than a million dollars has doubled since 2000, but these people were already wealthy relative to the population. Poverty, unemployment, and inequality have not improved at all under these reforms. Four million of a population of 33 million live below the poverty line, roughly an eighth of the country, and millions more are hovering just above it. Youth unemployment is nearly 21 percent, and a quarter of those with a university degree can't find a job. It's rotten tomatoes.

These conditions are ripe for the growth of violent extremism, and Morocco has suffered from it many times. Bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and 2007 and the Marrakesh bombing in 2011 killed dozens, and ISIS recruits from Morocco are training in Libya in the hundreds. Moroccan jihadists are mostly disenfranchised young men with no hope for their futures, the consequence of free market policies. Of course, this threat keeps the tourists away, exacerbating the situation.

This is why these tourist hounds act as they do. Opportunity is lacking; people take to informal sector tourism gigs because it's the only option for them. I understand this. But they don't have to be so damn rude about it. If I give you ten dollars and him ten dollars and everyone else ten dollars, how will I pay my bills? Just because we are Americans doesn't mean we are rich. While we are decidedly better off than most people in the world, our cost of living is also much higher, and we do have to save money for trips like this. I am grateful to have the opportunity.

Ilias took us to Todgha Gorge, which was decidedly Grand Canyon-like, except with the same harassment. It was impressive.

This video of the road leading up to the gorge is actually good, the best I took of the road trip:

And when we got out of the car:

Earth sure is cool.

It was time for lunch. Neither of us was hungry, especially not me and my salmonella. Ilias brought us to a quaint restaurant in the town near the gorge. The town looked like this:

I ate a little soup and a few bites of chicken kabob. I had Fanta. I thought the bubbles would help me. They facilitated the sick.

Boy was I sick. 

Leaving the gorge was pretty spectacular, despite it all:

We still had a ways to go before reaching Ouarzazate. I didn't care about anything else but getting to our hotel. The pain was intensifying, the knives sharpening. We made it before sunset and I went to bed immediately. Well, after drinking some mint tea. Damn the tomatoes!

The view from our room:

Sleep came mercifully.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tea in the Sahara

By the time we arrived to the desert, it was dark, but I knew exactly what we'd feel in the morning. It would be like the first time I went to the Alps in Switzerland. We had arrived by train at night, and the town of Interlaken was surrounded by blackness. We knew the mountains were there; we just couldn't see them. When we woke up in the morning and went outside, there they were, these massive snow-capped rocks, bigger than I could have ever imagined, taking over everything.

We couldn't see anything in the darkness of the Sahara, nothing but stars, anyway. We had left our driver in a town about an hour away, switching over to a 4X4 vehicle so we could get to our camp. Chris couldn't do a camel ride for medical reasons, and I'm not going to lie - I was happy to have the excuse not to. I'm finding that I am not as adventurous as I used to be, and I'm not sure what to think about that. Should I be sad? Should I feel like I'm missing out on things? Should I be concerned that I am losing the fearlessness I once had? Am I not doing things I would have done ten years ago because I'm afraid of them?

We didn't have to wonder why we needed a 4X4 to get to the camp once we left the paved road, first for rocky sand, then for sandy sand, like driving on a beach. It was kind of fun to slide around in that, our driver experienced and finding "roads" in the sand I would have never seen. We could only see what was immediately in front of us, but I knew the dunes were out there somewhere.

It was a good half hour through the desert to get to our camp, with very few lights - some headlights here and there, a far off town, someone wandering the desert with a cell phone, because of course, modernity just has to be everywhere, despite our best intentions. When we arrived to our camp, there was a fire, some lanterns, and the stars.

The stars. Like nothing you've ever seen, seemingly the entirety of the cosmos visible in an endless sky unpolluted by the lights of what we call civilization. I wanted to wander out, away from the camp, and stare at them for hours.

Instead, I had mint tea.

We went to our tent - we had ordered the deluxe tent that came with a real bed and a real bathroom, complete with running water and a real toilet, and we were pleasantly surprised to see how luxurious were our accommodations. Others laid on the ground and had to pee in a hole.

yeah, it's a tent

Get that camera out of my face.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been disappointed at the "inauthenticity" of it all, but the whole tour was "inauthentic," whatever that means, so I was happy to have some comfort. I only wish we had been able to spend more time there. In fact, that was a big disappointment, and I'm trying not to dwell on it.

By this time, Chris was really not feeling well, so he napped. I went out to look at the stars.

I'm not one to say "once in a lifetime" or "I'll never experience that again," but wow. I mean, wow. I was stunned, speechless, left staring at something impossibly real, impossibly beautiful, and oh so humbling. You just have to see it. I can't describe it to you. I can hardly believe it myself. The night sky wasn't black. It was white. It was...

At the risk of using what is currently the most overused word in modern American lexicon, it was amazing. It was awesome. It was...

You have to see it.

The best way I can describe what I saw is this: you know how it seems pretty ridiculous that three wisemen traveled the desert following a really bright star? That star they supposedly followed, Polaris (the North Star), was as bright as the moon outside the desert, and I am not exaggerating. It looked like this:

I'm not kidding. It really did look like that. But it was part of a sky full of starlight, the Milky Way, so many stars that they all blended's like the black and the white existed in the same time in the same space, that the darkness and the light were the same.

It was only appropriate that I couldn't figure out how to record it on the camera. Either camera. Too dark. You can't capture something like that. You have to be there. You have to experience it.

I wandered a bit farther out and soon wondered if there were animals out there like poisonous snakes or coyotes and I decided I wanted Chris to be out there with me, so I returned to our tent. I've always been afraid of animals in the night - we had coyotes and skunks on the farm in Ohio, and there were times I would run from my car to the house when I heard something out there. There in the desert night in a foreign land, I didn't know what could be out there.  But it was time for dinner anyway, and I thought we'd go back out there after.

Dinner was here:

the dinner tent

There was SO MUCH FOOD. Every time we sat down to eat in Morocco, there was too much food. I liked the food, but I hated the quantities, especially since so much of the country is poor. They were forcing us to be wasteful! Just because we come from wealthier countries doesn't mean we're all rich or that we all want to stuff ourselves. I have a difficult time believing that poor Moroccans eat that much. Course after course kept coming. It was all good (except for the beans cooked in argan oil, which is the third food in the world that I think is disgusting. The list is: blue cheese, anchovies, argan oil. I think there might be one other thing on that list, but I can't think of it now.)

Of the campers, there were three tables of Americans, a Japanese couple, a table full of Italians, and another table of Spanish.

Of course, one couple was from DC area.

Marrakesh hosted the UN climate conference the week before we went to Marrakesh, and it was happening during our first week in Morocco. The American man from Virginia (I feel bad but we both forget his name - his wife was Jeanie...he could have been David?) had been at the conference, and they were doing a two week tour of Morocco after. They live in Charlotte but he works in DC (they have a condo in DC, something that isn't uncommon), and though we were pretty quiet in the dinner tent, the fact that Chris was wearing a Redskins hoodie and I was wearing a Nationals one made it pretty obvious where we were from. (It was cold in the desert! We needed the hoodies!) When we were done with dinner we went to sit with them.

Of course Trump came up. The subject always came up, and everyone is so wary of it. Since he works on climate change, he was cautiously hopeful we wouldn't move backwards on that. But there was a hint of worry in his tone. We can't afford to go backwards on this. It's just appalling that this is a "political" issue when real people are suffering from climate change. It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. It is devastating people in the world. It actually is.

There was entertainment after dinner. I apologize that my photos didn't come out, but you can get the idea. There is a video of the music, too, but it is too dark. Still, you can hear it.

this guy was an incredibly talented drummer.

We weren't a lively bunch. They tried to get people to dance, but aside from an animated and obviously fun Spanish woman and two spoiled American teens, no one would dance. We wanted to go back to our tents but we didn't want to offend the musicians. Finally our table decided to leave together. I was excited to see the stars again, this time with Chris.

But they were gone, covered by clouds. How disappointing. As Chris was not well, we decided to turn in. It was maybe ten o'clock, but we were getting up at sunrise, which was about 6:30am.

the lanterns in our camp
It was 4am when I woke with an "oh no."

I have felt it before. It came from Italy, from Lebanon, from Turkey. It's not a normal stomach ache. It feels like knives. But it starts out dull, dull but different.

Those tomatoes.

I knew. I lay awake pretending it wasn't happening. I thought of Italy. That was maybe the worst day of my life, the worst pain, so bad that I kneeled over an Italian train toilet for hours, and if you know how disgusting Italian train toilets are, you know how bad I felt. We had been in Morocco ten days without problems...a lot of our produce is imported from Morocco. But not the tomatoes, maybe.

Wash your fruit, people.

I puked for the first time about an hour later but managed to go back to sleep until 6:15. I needed to sleep. But I was not going to let some salmonella ruin my trip to the desert, so I made myself get up.

And there they were, the dunes that had been invisible in the Sahara night, as majestic as the Alps had been to me all those years ago. My god, was it beautiful.

It was so cold. The winds were fierce. You think about deserts being so hot but at night they get so cold, and even though I had put on many layers, it was still uncomfortable. We left our tent and headed for the dunes to wait for the sunrise, me bent over in two. But then it was many people can say they puked in the Sahara?

I had food poisoning again, most likely from the tomatoes from yesterday's lunch.

What I was seeing, though, made me almost forget it. The Merzouga Dunes are a 50km long and 5km wide set of sand dunes that reach up to 350m high. You've never seen sand dunes until you see these. Note: these are my photographs, not paintings.

our camp

Pictures, don't do it justice. You had to see the way the sands floated over the mounds, as if they were ghosts, ancient spirits that had been there since before time began. If time really exists, it doesn't seem to here. This seems like it has always been here, as if the past, present, and future are all the same. I know that if you come here a week later, two, a month, a year, you will find it vastly different than the last time you saw it. You can see the ripples in the sand. It's an hour glass, flipping over and over and over again, endlessly. The way that sand floated over the mounds...

sahara selfie


this was our tent

white camel!
closer up.

We both agree - this was the best part of our trip.

These beautiful, earthly things exist, yet we fight wars and build Walmarts and yell about politics. Go here. Go places. You will learn everything in your life doesn't matter, that there are things infinitely greater than you can ever understand, but if you listen hard enough, if you put your ear to those ghosts, you can at least get an idea, and its far more than anything you can get in a Book written by man.

But those tomatoes.