Morocco provides a jumping off point for talking about nomadic tribes of the Sahara, the Berbers, Touaregs, Bella, Bozo and Fullani. I quickly move south, through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali exploring the threshold of the desert, the fertile ground between salt and sand.
The beauty of the medina is to be lost.
I spend days sinking into the beauty of Fez’s medina. I walk and walk and walk, never knowing quite where I am or where I want to get to, so perhaps I am not lost at all. I follow the hemlines of enshawled women, bags of bread being delivered; great sacks of refuse twice the width of the donkeys that carry them. For a while I follow a great pile of skins with two shaky legs. I finally pass the smelly mass and look back to see a tiny boy buried down to his chest, revealing only a sunshine yellow sweatshirt bearing the words Young and Free. Mostly I chase after shadows and specks of light.
On my second day of wandering I become more sensitive to the sounds and smells around me. I listen to voices that I blocked out before. I allow myself to be led around; I take directions; I have conversations in my gradually loosening French. I open myself up, only half expecting someone to really hassle me, to throw a scam my way, to trap me or try something. And against Fez's reputation, no one does. I remain open, relieved. I am glad to have time again to be alone in a crowd, to let my mind skip and jump with my feet, to be without schedule, without plan, without hurry. I let the city take me into its arms. I agree to surrender. Today three strangers stopped to tell me I have a good heart. Then they walked away without even asking me to visit a shop.
I begin to meet all sorts of characters -- Missouri the singing professor, the grizzled 70 year old guide who lived in Harlem in the eighties and tells me all about Nancy, the kindest woman he ever loved, the sad waiter, the cookie boy. Hassan, my favorite waiter in the cheapest coffeeshop in Marrekech whipped out some math one day to prove to us that all people are the same.
2. INTO THE DESERT
I leave Marrakech for the Erg Chebbi dunes outside of Merzouga with my backpack and no real hurry. I stop first to the Boudum de Dades and take a few days to hike through the gorge and spy on some shepherds. I climb up some rocks, I fall down some others, I get brought home for tea and couscous.
When it is time to keep moving, I check out of my auberge, buy some bread and cheese and sit on the side of the road at seven am waiting for a bus that never comes. Eventually, I start to thumb down anything that rolls by. Sadly, wealthy French tourists seem particularly petrified by hitchhikers. After an hour or two, all the guys on the block are flagging down trucks, vans and tour buses seeing if anyone is going to Rissani or Merzouga. Eventually a little red Fiat full of Spanish kids from Madrid picks me up and the adventure begins.
It's Fete de Mouhammed and the day only gets stranger from there.
The road is good and clear and we stop once for petrol, once to visit the Todra Gorge, once for a freak hailstorm that threatens to crack the windshield, twice for sandstorms, again for directions and tajine kalia.
We stop for tea at an art deco cafe in Risani. In ten minutes we have three new friends all offering in good faith to be our guides. La shukran. La shukran. Abdoul tells David about his tent camp and tries to make him name a price for a camel trip that we're not interested in. Hassan goes on and on to me about a girlfriend of his in DC that he met on the internet.
It's the Prophet's birthday and all the shops are closed and people are in the streets. Suddenly, there are shrieks and yells. Right through all the sunshine and mild breeze, big fat raindrops begin to fall. The boys leap to their feet. A car skids, an old man dances in his slippers in the middle of the intersection, little children turn their palms and mouths to the sky. Someone begins to sing. A boy crashes his bike in front of us. A policeman sits and drinks his tea slowly as his uniform changes color. And then it's over.
I take another sip of tea. Hassan turns to me, "It hasn't rained in this town in two years." Maudé points to Delia, "It always rains wherever we go. Promise." Delia chimes in, "500 dhiram and we'll give you some more rain. Just 500 dhiram."
We drive on across an ocean of tiny black pebbles. By dusk we reach the dunes. We dust our selves off, stretch a bit and wait for the camels to take us to a tent camp. There is a loveliness about riding a camel in the dark.
3. MORE QUESTIONABLE NOMADS
I fall so much in love with the desert at Merzouga that I cannot stay there. I am in Epcot Sahara and it hurts even more because its more beautiful than anything I have seen. I look out the window of my little room at Auberge Le Petit Prince and it is nothing by rolling waves of sand, a fluid horizon without distance, proportion, reference points.
I drink some water, take off my sandals and walk into the ocean to be alone for three or four hours. There is nothing to see but light, nothing to feel but your body, legs and thighs and calf muscles straining at the urge to slide, energized with the new uncertainty of whether or not the ground will choose to hold you.
I feel completely alone. I can scream here. I can dream here. I can die here. I can walk for hours following the sun. But it is all an illusion. Virtually all deserts are these days. The Erg Chebbi Dunes run due north south for about 30-40 km. But they only spread about 7 km wide. They are not the Sahara or even the "doorway to the desert". They are a puddle. But they seem limitless and it makes them lovely. All this illusion, all these Berber men dressed up like Touregs, all these fake nomad camps with toilets and wells hidden by palm fronds, perfect paved roads to a desert sunset.
Much of Morocco strikes me this way. It is stunning, but never seems real. Tourism has a way of turning everything into a caricature of itself. There are always some Spanish tourists doing circles on their 4x4s over the next dune or a tour bus full of French couples snapping identical photos of a veiled woman carrying water.
I talk to Brahim, a guide at the auberge for a while about life in the desert. He tells me he can take me to a "nomad" family that lives at the edge of the dunes. I ask why they would live there when there is no food for animals there. Eventually he tells me they don't have any animals, that the auberge dug a well for the family and asked them to stay there so tourists could come visit a real nomad family. It all strikes me as rather bizarre. He tells me that it is like this all over the world. That there are no real nomads left, no one still lives from the land in the desert. We talk about families that I have visited in India and Mongolia and he looks at me like I am full of well-crafted lies.