Morocco: A Night Camping in the Sahara Desert and a Few Other Gems

As I write this, I'm sitting here in my apartment in Madrid with sand from the Sahara still in my Converse sneakers. When I scrunch up my toes, I can still feel bunches of sand that have become successful little continent-crossing stowaways under my sock. It seems surreal, even now, to think that just a few days ago I was in Morocco, trekking across the Sahara Desert on a camel. 

I have to admit that living in Spain makes it easy to stick to traveling the little pocket that is Europe, a microcosm of countries to the north and east of us (with a few sprinkling of islands to the west). But I often forget how accessible the couple-hour plane ride is to our southern neighbor of Africa. Or more specifically, Morocco. 

I don't know what it is about the place, but it’s always had this aura of adventurous intrigue for me. A place so different in its culture, food, and music all beating to a different rhythm than the one that I’m used to. And isn’t it funny how that works, how we are drawn to newness, to that which is different from us. How we find novelty in throwing ourselves into that which is foreign, how we enjoy the process of gleaning similarities and connections between all the differences.

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Our Moroccan adventure started and ended in Casablanca with a trip to Marrakesh in the middle. Although our time in Casablanca was limited, we managed to see the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, a beautiful and impressively ornate fortress of a mosque situated next to the ocean. The inlaid designs of the mosaics stretch the entire breadth of the place, on the walls and over the doors in bright sea greens and deep indigo blues and shiny golds. Just standing in front of one of the massive doors, with its intricate patterns towering above you, will leave you speechless. The place has an energy to it—solemn yet vibrant, impressive yet serene.

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Marrakesh, on the other hand, lends a different flavor: a bustling city of small, winding streets with a constant buzz of sensory stimulation. Day and night, the city center is electric with street performers, tourists, and vendors selling clothes, knockoff sunglasses, and cheap souvenirs. In the Jemaa El Fnaa square, between the occasional snake charmer and monkey-accompanied street performer, vendors lay out large blankets where they sell haphazard goods of cheap argan oil, a potpourri display of teas, and bins filled with gooey black soap (a typical Moroccan soap made from olives and essential oils and used in the traditional hammam ritual). Some vendors sell homemade bread loaves in small wooden carts or an assortment of pastries from small baskets—from sweet triangle-shaped almond treats to small jam-filled cookies. Women dressed in hijabs and long niqabs, with nothing but their eyes showing, offer henna art for 1€.

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The street-side markets are a perfect blend of local and touristy, and you’ll quickly find locals picking up their groceries from small kiosks dotting the narrow roads. The streets are thick with these small open-air shops selling fragrant herbs and neat cone-shaped piles of spices. Smaller, more winding streets shoot off in odd directions, vendors packed along the sides selling big woven fabrics with patterns in deep magentas and burnt oranges and mahogany browns. Handmade leather purses and shoes hang in clusters from the shops' interior, turquoise and coral embellished silver jewelry crowded atop storefront tables. Large keyhole-shaped mosque doors pop out from in between kiosks in colorful patterns, and dotting the long line of vendors sit huge wooden carts displaying mounds of mini-melons or an assorted mix of fresh fruits and vegetables. Handmade thatched roofing covers sections of the street, and during the day, hot white sunlight streams through and makes mosaic patterns on the ground.

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Occasionally, large wooden carts will display a small selection of fish and other seafood on nothing but a bed of leaves. Piles of brains and liver are plopped right down on the counter of some stands, while large silver hooks hold giant slabs of meat overhead. One small plaza is dedicated almost entirely to olives—mounds of black spiced ones, large green ones, and small purple ones the color of deep red wine. Sometimes a man riding a bicycle or a donkey will pass by carrying a cartful of freshly picked herbs, leaving a trail of mint behind it.

It's a whirlwind just walking down the street, motorcycles zooming past, kicking up clouds of dust, where vendors beckon you into shops in at least three languages (“Hola-bonjour-hello…”), and some even throw in an extra phrase or two they picked up along the way (“See you latuh—alligatuh…"). Every once in a while, the call to prayer will vibrate out over the city from the loudspeakers, the songs humming in the sculpted, rich and thick intonations of Arabic.

However, while I loved exploring both Casablanca and Marrakesh, the true gem of the trip wasn't either. In fact, it wasn't anything we saw or heard, but rather the lack of it. 

The day after we went to Marrakesh, we decided to do a desert tour in the Sahara which consisted of a 9-hour bus ride to reach from Marrakesh (including a few stops along the way). We arrived at our destination just before sunset, where we were soon mounted onto camels and ushered into the desert. While the ride wasn’t the most comfortable, I couldn’t help but smile the entire time. With their expressive faces, big lips, buck teeth, and long eyelashes, you can’t help but be amused by their cartoon-like demeanor.

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We ended an hour later via camelback at the campsite (where we would sleep for the night) which consisted of a ring of small black Berber tents pitched in the sand with a larger one at one end for the "dining area" and another one adjacent for the restrooms. We arrived just as the sun exploded into neon pinks and oranges over the sand and mountains in the distance. We all dismounted our camels and stood scattered around the camp watching the sky turn from fire to mauve, a silence settling over the group after a ruckus of laughing and chatting our way into the desert. 

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After settling in a bit, we all went to the big tent for dinner where we sat at large circular tables and drank strong tea and shared a large meat tagine that was so tender it fell off with a fork and spiced vegetables with typical Moroccan bread. After dinner, a few of the guides played the drums and sang and showed us how to dance to their traditional music. 

A few friends and I started chatting with a few of our guides; there was Hassan, another Hassan (a fairly common name in Morocco), and Ibrahim. They wore long, colorful robes with small embellishments on them in yellows and golds with large blue and black turbans. We asked them questions about Morocco and how to say words in their native tongue, Bereber. They were warm and open and patient with us as we fired off our questions about living in the desert. They all grew up in nearby towns and we chatted with them about their childhood, their families, their traditions and their language. While they primarily spoke Bereber and Arabic, we all spoke in Spanish and turned to French or English or Portuguese when we didn’t know how to say something, finding some common ground at the convergence of five languages to try to express ourselves.

Eventually, everyone trailed off to bed and we realized we were the only ones left in the tent. The air was warm so we all walked barefoot in the sand outside where we sat on a large blanket under the sky. They brought out a couple of the drums, and as we miserably failed to mimic the rhythms they played, we couldn’t help but enjoy making a cacophony of noise into the desert night, like little kids who just got a drum set and had a new intention of making as much noise as possible. Hassan asked if we wanted tea and he soon came back with a silver tray carrying an ornate silver pot and cups, laying them down on the blanket. He poured some out into two glasses and then back into the pot, explaining it helped mix the tea. He then poured it again into each glass from high above, letting the liquid fall with a hard splash into each glass. 

We talked as we drank the tea under the stars, the three of them smoking cigarettes, and we all watched as a bat circled overhead a few times, dipping low above our heads and then disappear into the blackness behind the tents. We talked with them until late, sharing stories and telling bad jokes and laughing into the big night sky. We even learned how to properly wrap a turban around our heads.

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As my friends and I walked back to our tent together, we couldn’t help but feel an immense gratitude for sharing these golden moments with the three of them, for getting to experience all of this. For eating some of the best local tagine we've ever tasted, for watching the sunset from atop a camel, for sleeping in a tent and getting up to see the sunrise and watching the sunlight peel over the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara. To appreciate being in space that is that deep desert silence, where you can hear absolutely nothing—not a car driving past, nor trees blowing, nor an animal scurrying into a bush. Just absolute silence.  

And somewhere amongst the cheersing teas with “Besseha” (salud/cheers in Arabic), counting the stars, and trying to balance a turban made of 11m of cloth on my head, it hit me. That point of connection. That point when your energy aligns with other humans and you sync. The moment that you realize: here you are in the middle of the Sahara Desert with nothing but a pack of camels and a hodgepodge group of humans from around the globe—Singapore, Spain, Portugal, Holland, the U.S.—in the middle of Morocco and you connect with these people that you would never have come across otherwise. People coming from different countries and religions and cultures and yet that moment when you can all sit outside on a blanket on the sand in the warm night and drink tea together and laugh at bad jokes and talk about your childhood memories and teach each other a thing or two about how one lives on the side of the world. That golden, sweet moment of connection.  

The day that we left Morocco, we took a cab to the train station in Casablanca. The window was down, and hot gusts of wind were blowing in my face. I could hear the grumble and coughing of the taxi’s old engine and cars honking as dirt bubbled up in clouds, the radio turned up loud in jumbled Arabic. And I couldn’t help but smile with that feeling of being on an adventure, that feeling of being transplanted into a city, like lungs or a heart in a foreign body. Foreign, but somehow it fits there, as if there was this little space in the world, carved out—a molding that specifically fits you.

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Nostalgia is a funny thing. It's odd how the brain teases us to want something so bad and yet at the same time acknowledges that the thing we want cannot be recreated or attained. How the mind tries to catch glimpses of these memories by planting little pieces of them in music and smells and objects. We try to immortalize these moments through art or our surroundings. Perhaps that's why I like writing about my travels so much; perhaps it’s a way to try to hold on to them, to have something to hold on to when memory fades and all I’m left with are the piecemeal stories of people and places and events. 

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To be fair, I suppose it is cheating in a way—there’s something special about the temporality of good memories. They’re more special because they are fleeting, because you remember the essence of the moment rather than every single detail. Think of any good memory. More likely than not, you remember it being good because of the way you felt, or the general atmosphere, rather than the minutiae of what was happening. Very rarely do you remember the precise, tiny details that you can capture in writing or other art. I suppose it is then, in a way, selfish to try to capture that perfect picture, to try to wrestle it and tame it into words instead of just letting the moment pass by. But humans are selfish creatures, and I think more often than not we are keepers by nature. We want to hold on to what’s good, those moments that fill us with happiness, the moments that make us feel whole or complete.

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But while it may be selfish, perhaps that process is also necessary. To try to understand how you fit into the big picture, what all these experiences mean, and to try to understand what and how it can change you. I think half the point of travel is the process of digesting it all, to take all this outside information and to assemble and reassemble your world view with all of these new experiences. I think we would be missing the point if we simply traveled for the sake of seeing neat things.

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The thing is, you shed layers when you travel. You slowly start to unwrap all those layers of who you think you need to be or who you want to be. You take off that day-to-day makeup you wear, and over time you begin to chip away at all that goodness underneath—the real stuff. You get closer to the raw you; chiseling away the top layer until it gets to the foundation, breaking it down and breaking it down, the way the ocean carves out cliffs over time. I guess that’s what they mean when they say that you learn about yourself when you travel. You clear out all that extra brush in the way so you can see clearer. You begin to distinguish between what is real and what is fluff, and over time I think you become a more authentic version of yourself. It’s this “learning,” or this process of discovering, that allows us to find the good stuff that’s been there all along, but just hidden underneath everything. 

And sometimes it takes traveling half a continent away to get there. Sometimes it takes finding yourself in a place with a new language, a new culture, and new traditions. Sometimes it takes lying out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, looking up at the big desert sky with some friends and a few new ones and feeling so foreign yourself and yet at the same time like there was this little spot in the world, right here carved out for you. Feeling that point of connection, how real and tangible it is, and allowing the world to break your shell just a little bit. Because I think as we start to shed our own layers, we allow ourselves to better connect to the energy around us—people, places, different ways of thought. And what we're left with are these golden moments. Where we become more open, more receptive, more aware of how we are interacting with everything around us.

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At one point I remember Hassan talking about the different people he saw come through the camp. There were those that came, took their pictures, and left. The one-and-doners. The check-off-the-boxers. And then there were others that came and wanted to know more. That were curious about the culture, the people, the language, the food, the traditions. He told us, "La gente son como piedras"— people are like rocks—and that the earth is made of both rock and soil. And I guess some, apart from the rocks and soil, are like the little mounds of sand in my shoes: stowaways in a foreign corner of the world, lost but somehow right where they're supposed to be. Because the thing is, in the end they're really not so foreign after all.