From African Sand to Sea

Christian MonaghanChristian Monaghan
University of California, Los Angeles
Meknes, Morocco
Fall 1 2009

From atop my camel, all I can see are sand dunes for miles. Berber guides tell me that the buttes in the distance mark the border with Algeria, but it seems like a rather meaningless distinction in face of the harsh Sahara. After an hour of swaying back and forth, we arrive at an enormous 300 ft. sand dune and climb to the top for a spectacular view. In one direction lies the oasis town of Merzouga, and in the other direction, the Sahara’s windswept dunes howl all the way to Egypt and the Red Sea, over 3000 miles away. The previous day my entire Moroccan study abroad group, as well as five groups from similar programs in Spain, all drove 8 hours down to Erfoud, the end of the road so to speak. In Erfoud, over 150 American students piled into a caravan of 4WD Land Rovers for the hour-long trip to Merzouga through the desert. Going through Erfoud, we were one endless line of Land Rovers, but once we left the city, each car chose its own path and sped off into the night. Looking out the window, I could see cars all around, weaving in and out of each other and speeding through the sands, leaving no trace they had ever been there except for a plume of dust and a rumble in the distance.

This trip was a nice change because I got to see two familiar faces from home. I got to meet up with Whitney, who’s studying in Salamanca, and Casey, who’s studying in Madrid. They’re friends of mine from UCLA and are both in the Student Alumni Association with me.

Our first day in the desert, all 150 students got up before dawn to see the sunrise and then later that morning, we all climbed atop our camels to go further into the desert. After hiking to the top of an enormous sand dune for a spectacular view, we headed into the desert town of Merzouga to be swarmed by children asking for candy and money.

Many of the exchange students from Spain were clueless, much like we were when we first arrived in Morocco. They got ripped off left and right on everything they bought, with no idea how to bargain. One girl bought a pipe for 250 DH that was worth maybe 30 DH tops.  Another girl bargained a carpet down to 3000, but when they swiped her credit card, they swiped it in dollars, not dirhams. They were helpless cash cows. Also, many of the Spanish kids were paranoid about eating the vegetables and fruits, which I think is an overreaction. I’ve been drinking the water here since my second day in Morocco and have yet to get sick.

The next morning we took 4WD’s to the buses, and headed back to Meknes. However, the trip wasn’t over for me. After two hours, my friend Tas and I got off in Errachidia, to continue on our own for 5 more days. From Errachidia, Tas and I headed to the Todra Gorge, known for its beautiful mountains and canyons. On the bus ride there, we met Omar, a Berber in his mid-forties, who spoke Amazigh (Berber), Arabic, French, Spanish and English. After arriving, we sat down and had mint tea with him. To improve his English, he asked for the definitions of a few words he had heard recently. They included the words circumcise, eggplant, coconut, negotiate, issue, diarrhea, and mushroom. He also helped teach Tas and me some words in Amazigh, a language completely unrelated to Arabic, but spoken by a large part of Morocco. (Although Morocco is considered an Arab country, the majority of Moroccan’s are Amazigh, not Arab.) It was fascinating to see how Omar learned to speak English so well just by talking to tourists and asking them questions about a few words here and there until he built up a repertoire of English vocabulary. Moroccan’s have an amazing ability for learning languages. Nearly every Moroccan knows at least 2, maybe 3 languages. Which is all the more impressive because very few Moroccans I’ve met have ever left the country (even most of my well-educated professors have never ventured outside of Morocco’s borders due to poor currency conversion rates and the miles of red tape and visas they have to go through in order to enter another country.) After tea with Omar we got a ride up into the gorge and found a small riad to stay in for the night.

The next morning we got up and went on a 4-hour hike up the canyon. It was breathtaking—a narrow gorge with a small crystal-clear stream running through.  On our hike up, we passed an enormous herd of sheep and goats. About an hour later, we passed two Berber women leading a few mules down the mountain. From the top of the gorge we had a spectacular view of the small town below.

That afternoon we took a bus to Ourzazate where we spent the night and in the morning continued our journey to Agadir. After a seven-hour bus ride we arrived in Agadir, a large cosmopolitan city on the Atlantic. On our first trip to Marrakesh, we had planned to visit Agadir, but after learning it was a large Europeanized city with little Moroccan culture or history, we skipped it in favor of staying two more nights in Essaouira. However, after traveling in small, traditional Moroccan cities for the last 2 months, being in a modern city was a nice change. I felt like I was in Los Angeles—large boulevards, high rises, nightlife, foreign restaurants, fancy hotels and lots of European and Moroccan tourists. After two nights in Agadir, we continued to Marrakesh in order to take a train back to Meknes.

Once again, Marrakesh was fun, but also tiring from all the hassling. However, it was actually entertaining a few times because we were no longer ignorant tourists who didn’t know the prices. For example, when we got out of the bus station there was a taxi driver offering to take us to the main plaza for 50 DH. However, I knew the price was 10 DH, so I just laughed at him and found a petit taxi. When trying to get a hotel, the manager was asking 120 DH for two people. Unfortunately for him I knew the price was 100 DH so I just held firm until he gave me my price. Bargaining can be a lot of fun, but you have to know the value of things or else you get ripped off.

Leave a Reply