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Tales from Morocco: navigating the desert

Courtesy+of+Elaina+Zachos+
Courtesy of Elaina Zachos

Courtesy of Elaina Zachos

Courtesy of Elaina Zachos

By Elaina Zachos / Staff Writer

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“Tales from Morocco” is a reoccurring column on reporter Elaina Zachos’ semester studying culture, tradition and daily life in the North African nation.

These days, I don’t ride the 71C — I ride camels. 

Last month, my study abroad program took journalism students from seaside Rabat, Morocco to the landlocked south. We made stops in the Moroccan cities of Meknes, Fez, Ouarzazate and Marrakesh, as well as the country’s  cedar forests in Ifrane and its desert in Merzouga.

We spent most of the six days on the road, and slept in a different city each night. The blue coach bus stamped “North Africa Tours” announced our presence everywhere we went, making us an easy target for vendors selling cheap scarves and fake fossils at tourist traps.

We breezed through centuries-old medinas and browsed local cooperatives to buy souvenirs and gifts. We also met a Moroccan man known for playing the part of Osama bin Laden in American movies. But, through it all, I’ll remember Merzouga the most.

Merzouga is a small village in southeastern Morocco. It’s home to the Erg Chebbi, which is one of the country’s two Saharan ergs, or large seas of sand dunes. The dunes can be more than 160 yards high in some places and span 31 miles north-to-south. They stretch 3 to 6 miles east-to-west, right next to the Algerian border.

To start the journey, we leave Ifrane in the morning, where snow dusts the peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. By afternoon, we reach Rissani, Morocco, a dusty suburb of the Sahara. We stop for lunch at a multi-storied restaurant, where waiters serve us medfouna. Medfouna means “buried” in Arabic, and it’s basically a savory stuffed flatbread. Some call it “Berber pizza,” after the native tribes of North Africa.

After finishing up, we make our way to a sandy lot a couple blocks away from the restaurant. There, four silver Land Rovers wait for us, along with people dressed in bright, traditional garb who work at the auberge, the remote desert inn where we will be spending the night.

Our group splits up and we climb into the vans. I jump in a Land Rover with four other students — Kelsey, a petite Pittsburgher who goes to Villanova University, Mackenzie, a Denison University student, Wes, a photographer from Dickinson College and Savin, a sassy Italian who goes to Xavier University.

I’m sitting directly behind our Moroccan driver. A patch of his curly black hair pokes through his dark purple turban. His hands wrap around the steering wheel, arms covered by his dark blue caftan. He turns on the car and Arabic rolls out of the stereo. His sky blue Nikes press the pedal — we’re off.

We start driving through the town, following a dirt road bordered by dusty storefronts. But after a couple minutes, the town shrinks into a mirage in the rear-view mirror as we approach the desert. The old buildings fade away, replaced by barren lands sprinkled with rocks and tufts of dry grass. Tawny sand dunes draw us to the horizon.

The Sahara is the third largest desert in the world, right behind Antarctica and the Arctic. Roughly the size of the United States at 3.6 million square miles, it spans northern Africa from Mauritania in the west to Egypt in the east. The arid climate gives way to sandstorms and dust devils, making it one of the harshest environments on the planet. About 2 million people live day in and day out in the desert, but tourists like us pass through on a leisurely basis.

After driving for a few minutes, we reach a traffic barrier on the road. Then the driver steers to the right and we’re off-roading.

Wes and I roll down the windows. Breeze ripples our hair and the driver turns up the volume on the radio. The music rivals the wind snapping through the car. Kelsey slides on a pair of turquoise sunglasses to fight the bright sun.

Soon, we’re turning circles in the sand. I can see another one of our Land Rovers in the distance to my left, stirring up sand like a Saharan parasailor. Mackenzie, Wes and I slide around in the middle seats, bracing ourselves against the car doors. Wind dances around Mackenzie’s white cotton shirt and teases her topknot.

I look back to see Savin pointing his film camera out the window. Wes is doing the same, following the other Land Rovers in our caravan with his Fujifilm electronic rangefinder. We are laughing and screaming as we zoom up to another Land Rover.

Badrdine, our Moroccan program assistant, holds an ombre scarf out the passenger side window, tightly wound around his fist. The wind pulls the fabric taut, making it almost flush with the van. Both Land Rovers slow down and the scarf slackens, churning in the wind like smoke from an extinguished candle. I reach out my window and try to grab the rogue textile, but the wind whips the scarf just beyond my reach. Our driver steers to the right and we bend away from the other Rover.

The rocky brown-gray dirt fades into orange sand as we drive through the Sahara. The sun hovers above the not-so-distant dunes, low in the sky but not quite about to set. Within half an hour we reach the auberge.

Mackenzie, Wes and I have to climb out of the middle seat before we can flip it forward and free Savin. We grab our belongings and rush toward the hotel. Sand leaks into my mesh sneakers as we make it up stone steps to the lobby, which is a large square room with a fountain in the middle and a reception desk taking up space in one of the corners.

Some students head for the bathroom — the medfouna was not kind to them. The rest of us drop off our bags in an empty common room before going back out to the desert.

The sun is lower in the sky now, stretching our shadows into shady giants. We walk back to where the Land Rovers dropped us off, but instead of vans, camels now wait for us. Their massive legs are folded under them and their humps are covered with woven saddles. Rope harnesses string them together in lines of two or three.

One of the Moroccan guides leads Mackenzie to a camel, then another helps Kelsey to the same string of animals. I step over the camel behind Kelsey and grab hold of the metal bar that serves as reins. The animal stands up, rear first, pushing me forward before stepping up with its front legs and straightening out. One of the guides grabs a rope dangling in front of my camel and starts walking. We’re off again.

Riding a camel is a serene experience. A guide leads us up and down the rolling dunes. We lean forward when going uphill and backward going downhill. The camels’ cloven hooves sink into the sand with each step.

From the west, the setting sun stretches our shadows again, this time casting the shapes of the camels into mammalian AT-AT walkers. We dismount and climb up a neighboring dune on foot. The fine sand attempts to swallow our feet, and we have to run to make it up the dune.

The guides have laid out some blankets for us on top of the dune. On the horizon, the sun is a neon orb, floating just above the distant dunes. It dips lower, slowly sneaking behind the sandbanks. Within a few minutes, it dissolves, leaving a pale sky behind, a subtle rainbow fading from grayish purple to bright yellow.

We stay up on the dune for a few more minutes. Badr challenges us to roll down the sandbank, and after some “I’ll go if you go’s,” three girls tumble down. Wes follows them with his camera, snapping action shots and jumping out of their brakeless way.

We take more pictures and stare at the aftermath of the sunset for a couple minutes before heading back to the awaiting camels. The guides pick up the now empty blankets and bring them to where the dune slopes down. They lay them down, angled, and grab two corners on the lower part of the slope.

“Berber sledding,” one of them says.

We stand there for a second, not sure what to do. Then someone takes one of the blankets and the rest of us follow suit. I hop on a blanket behind a dark-haired girl named Amelia. A guide pulls on the corners and runs backward, dragging us down the dune.

We scream like we’re on a roller coaster, even though the ride only lasts for a few seconds.

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Tales from Morocco: navigating the desert