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.

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