It is now our chance to experience desert life in the Northern Sahara. We drive past agricultural villages into an ever-increasing stark landscape until we veer off to a dry red-dirt area where there are a number of hotels built in “kasbah-style” to service the many tourists who come to Morocco to spend a night in the desert. Our one-hump camels (actually dromedaries) are waiting for us with their handlers, in long jellabas and heads wrapped in traditional berber style, 6 of us to each camel leader. While the camels are sitting, we stride our animals and, with a slap to their legs, they rise up, back legs first, throwing us forward, and then long front legs, tossing us in the other direction. Jan named her vehicle “Lurch” which is descriptive of the experience.
There are no stirrups so legs hang down in a position which becomes uncomfortable over time as we head up and down over sand dunes. There is nothing in sight but the burnt umber dunes, rolling off to mountains in the distance, and the occasional spark of green trees. It is cool comfortable weather, slightly overcast. After about a hour, muffled in the silence of the sand with an occasional complaint by a camel, we see some tented camps, some for the tourists who flock to this area, and some for the local people who service them.
We arrive at our “luxury” camp, two groups of black tents around a center fire, with a separate “toilet-lavatory” tent, with running water and flush toilets. But it starts to drizzle right after we arrive and when the time dinner is upon us, we gather in an inside tent protected from the elements and enjoy tangines with fruit for dessert. The beds are comfortable but getting up in the dark in the middle the night, with a light rain making the path to the lavatory tent a little muddy, is not pleasant. I don’t get much sleep but we are all surprised by how warm it is — we were all prepared for desert winter night cold and instead we found ourselves in an unseasonable desert warmth at night.
After morning tea, we head back to the hotel for breakfast, now seasoned camel travelers, adjusting our bodies for more comfort for the ride home. We smell of animal and most of us are sore indeed, but all happy to have experienced the smallest taste of desert life.
Our next day we drive into a very small village in the M’Goun region of the High Atlas mountains, outside common tourist routes, up windy roads with great red rock canyons like Utah or Colorado. At the large extended-family home of the local leader created for certain tour groups, we spend time on a walk with a local man. We hike up on a narrow path, past fruit and olive trees, through a small gorge until we are above the town, looking down on buildings blending in perfectly with the surrounding rockscape, all the same sienna color.
We see a soccer field, on levels stones with two goal posts, in an outlying area and wonder how the children get to it for practice. We see a large group of white beehives on a hillside, owned, we are told, by two nearby families. We pass through a narrow pass with some local families seeking out a life on bare sloped stone walls. Down again to where there are agricultural fields, women with large sheaves of fodder or some form of vegetarian carried in a sling on their backs. I think about finding out how heavy they are but realize it is inappropriate to do so. The men have hoes on their back and are riding or leading donkeys or mules carrying their loads home. We meet our local guide’s wife and some of this 6 daughters, well worn with years of hard work.
Geri, Rich, Jan and I walk on the narrow dirt passage through the village trying to find some kind of store to purchase a little rope to fix Rich’s suitcase — but we find nothing except some children along the way and closed doors to homes, not a single shop of any kind. Back at our guest house, we have tea along with the 17 year old daughter of the owner and ask our main guide about life for the women in this world. Among the most memorable information is that this beautiful teenager, who left school at age 12 to help the family and learn the skills for marriage, will probably get married within the next few years to someone chosen by her father, with perhaps the opportunity to talk to her chosen one or two times before their marriage. And she will enter her marriage bed with no knowledge of sexual intercourse, with male relatives outside waiting to receive a bloodied sheet after her wedding night — to prove her virginity. And then she will be living at the beck and call of her mother-in-law.
We have excellent food at this guest home and the weather has held out for us. We head out of the valley and view other villages of this remote area, with villages built in harmony with each other and the land, occasionally punctuated by a yellow or blue pained door, creating some individuality in an otherwise homogenous landscape. We are on our way to Ait Ben Haddou.