A Night in the Dunes

Running short of time in Morocco, we had to choose where to go for our last few nights – head to the beach, or spend some time in the east of the country near the desert. We’d met an American Rotary Scholar studying in Rabat whose family was visiting. They’d been out to Merzouga and spent a night in the desert, and they spoke so highly of the experience that we decided to try and make the trip to the edge of the Sahara from Khenifra in one day.

With a hodge-podge of 3 rickety buses and 3 grand taxis, we made it to a Tuareg-run auberge that backs right up to the dunes just in time to catch two camels to the Berber tourist camp about an hour’s ride away. Though it felt like a bit of a movie set, with the string of similarly placed hotels that had the Sahara in their backyards, the dunes themselves were very real, stretching for miles in nearly every direction.

At the Berber camp, we met a charming French family who loved Anne-Claire and were patient with my paltry French. We shared a dinner of lentil soup, a delicious vegetable tajine, and melon as the sun set and a few stars started to pop out from behind the clouds. It was still warm when bedtime rolled around, so we all had the brilliant idea to sleep on the sand, instead of taking shelter in the heavy woven-blanket tents set up around us.

Almost immediately upon lying down, hot winds from the east began to kick up the fine orange sand onto our mattresses and into our ears, noses and mouths. I looked down at my sheets at one point during the night, which I’d remembered being white but now were swirled with dark patterns that shifted as I moved my hand over them. The sand was everywhere – eyes, ears, hair, elastic bands in our clothing.

Forget the hamams (the traditional Moroccan bathhouses where you’re exfoliated with grainy soap by a masseuse or close friend). A night of sandblasting left us with little unscrubbed skin. I didn’t decide until halfway through the night that sweating under a sheet to cover my face was preferable to being hosed by the Sahara. To say the least, it was a long night.

We awoke the next morning, commiserated with the French family over the night’s lack of sleep, and boarded our camels for the trek back to the auberge. The showers they had waiting for us were certainly welcome, though I still feel like I’m sprinkling Moroccan sand all over West Africa, even several weeks on.

After breakfast, the French family took us on a tour of their ‘camping-car.’ We said goodbye, wished them well, and promised to keep in touch. We set out on foot from the hotel to catch a taxi, but just as we were reaching the road, Mael (the young boy) came running after us yelling, “Anne-Claire! Anne-Claire! Where are you going?” in French.

We told him we had to get to Rissani, a nearby town, to catch a ride toward Ourzazate. It turns out Mael’s family was also headed that way, so we all piled into the camper. Though it was a quick trip, it saved us a lot of time, as we didn’t have to wait for a taxi to fill up before it left. Transport from Rissani on was pretty straightforward, if not altogether easy. So for the 30-km ride, we flipped through the pictures of the family’s vacation in Morocco in perhaps the most comfortable ride we’ve had since leaving Europe.

The Life of a Volunteer

In my last post, I wrote about our time with a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. If you ever have the opportunity to spend time with volunteers in their ‘natural environment’ as it were, you should jump at the chance. In addition to Christine, we’ve spent time with a Senegalese volunteer, an RPCV from Ghana who’s now working in Senegal, and a volunteer in Mali. From an ex-pat’s perspective, no one knows more about the culture than a PCV.

Our time in Kerrouchen was magical. Here’s a short video of a quintessentially Peace Corps moment with a woman at the cooperative. It’s difficult to remember that every day during Peace Corps service is not like that. At times it feels like you’ll never learn the language or that the heat will never subside or that your work won’t do any good or that the mosquitoes will never stop biting.

Anne-Claire and I have the privilege of reliving our experiences and remembering the best days we had in Niger. Time softens the hard edge of the struggles, and in the end they become good stories: “Remember the time I spent 9 hours on a bush taxi ride – I could’ve gotten there faster (by several hours) if I’d walked;” or “Wasn’t it funny that time I threw up so hard that cabbage came out my nose?”

On this side of service, you never remember the mosquitoes.

A Few Pictures from the Road

We just arrived in Niger safely after a bit of a detour. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to fly from Bamako to Niamey for about the same cost as what it would have been to buy a visa for Burkina Faso and spend time there. Our Air Mali flight was ahead of schedule when the red hardpan I remember so well from my first flight to Africa seven years ago came into view. We flew over the stadium and saw the old Peace Corps office nearby.

Unfortunately, we also were watching a wall of dust descend on the area at the same time. After circling around for 15 minutes – you could feel the pilot’s hesitation – they finally decided to go on to Ouagadougou, the closest airport and where most of the plane’s passengers were headed anyway. Fortunately, when we landed, they found us a flight on a new African airline called Asky, and we eventually did make it to Niger, just a few hours late.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the storm, but I did get the river after what was a massive storm. The temperature dropped to around 75 degrees F, which for Niger is right around freezing.

I’m also posting a few other amusing pictures. The first is the bush taxi apprentice, who, like the guard at the gates of Oz, popped his head back to collect our money.

The second – well, I’m not one to criticize anyone trying to speak or write in a foreign language. But I also know that the best way to learn is with a good sense of humor. This placard was on our Air Mali flight. Number 4 is particularly good.

Peace Corps Days

Perhaps the best days we had in Morocco came thanks to a Peace Corps Volunteer who was also a classmate of Anne-Claire’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine lives in a town called Khenifra in a valley in the Middle Atlas. The ‘bowl of heat’ where Khenifra sits keeps it well off the tourist trail, especially in mid July.

For that reason, we enjoyed strolling the streets as Moroccans went about their days rather than trying to get us to buy something. Anne-Claire even went behind the counter at a schpeckia (forgive my spelling for these delicious pieces of thin, fried dough covered in honey and sesame seeds, often a treat during Ramadan to break the daily fast) shop and helped the workers there to their delight. We left loaded down with far too many of the sweets to eat ourselves.

Our second day in town, Christine needed to have some paperwork completed for a boy she’d gotten into a USAID-sponsored summer camp. He lives in a village a few hours up into the mountains, so we set out early of the first of two taxis we needed to take to get there.

In Morocco, these ‘grand taxis’ are a bit better than the bush taxis you’ll find further south in West Africa, but only just. They’re usually wide, boxy Mercedes a few decades old, and drivers use the extra space added before fuel consumption was much of a concern to pack 4 people in the back seat, and three across the front, including the driver.

Wedged in against the door I gradually got a little more room, the car’s other passengers settling like the contents of a bag of potato chips as the car trundled around the mountain roads. We arrived in Kerrouchen just after two in the afternoon. The town is stunningly situated on a dusty, sloping plateau with the jagged peaks of the Middle Atlas rising around in every direction. The family that Christine had lived with met us at the taxi stop and took us back to their house.

Like every family who has hosted us on our journey, they pulled out all the stops for us (no doubt due to the excitement of seeing Christine again), beginning with this deliciously sweet sesame paste (the name of which I can’t remember). We had a Moroccan salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by pasta, two whole chickens (one fried and the other cooked with saffron), and dessert of water melon, in addition to some mint tea, of course.

Afterward, we relaxed with the family, especially enjoying Rachid’s two-year-old daughter, Souhaila. Their neighbor joined us for part of the meal. He’s a mountain guide, and it’s his 14-year-old son that Christine is getting into the summer camp. Tanned and sinewy with clear blue eyes that reflect the region’s Berber roots, he comes off as no-nonsense, so much so that it was difficult to get him to accept our polite refusal to stay the night at his house.

Alas, we knew we had to keep going. Before leaving the village, we visited a couple of women’s cooperatives on the edge of town. Both groups produce beautiful textiles, and they greeted us warmly. The second group of women was particularly excited to see us. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall in what felt like a large school room, with giant weaving looms sitting in front of three to four women each. Their chatter was punctuated by the thump, thump, thump as they smacked the threads into place.

As soon as we entered, a few of them hopped up and offered us tea, this time the more potent green tea similar to what the Tuaregs drink in Niger. Their hands were gnarled from decades of hard work, and their faces – creased by birthdays and children and husbands – testified to the diversity of the Moroccan people and its age-old importance as the gateway to Africa. You might expect to see their light skin and rounded noses in Eastern Europe, but here they were, blue eyes and all, on the edge of the dark continent; only the tattoos that the older women have on their foreheads signal the vast difference in cultures.

Most younger Berber women these days don’t have the tattoos, but the legend behind them demonstrates the cohesiveness we felt standing among the women at the cooperative as we laughed, drank tea and admired their handiwork. Long ago, some Berber women were taken to Europe as slaves, and they were given these tattoos to denote their lowly status. When a few of the women escaped and returned to their homes, everyone knew they’d been slaves because of the tattoos. So that these women wouldn’t be ostracized as damaged goods, the other women decided to tattoo themselves as well, making it impossible to know who had been a slave and who hadn’t.

After a lengthy goodbye, we headed back toward the taxi stand and eventually started the drive home, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Peace Corps service is full of ups and downs, but it’s days like this you remember – time spent sharing food, laughter and simply time with others. I left my service in 2006 believing that the best part of Peace Corps is the exchange between two vastly different cultures, and I remain convinced of that. More often than not – as was the case this day in that little town in Morocco – I was on the receiving end of the generosity toward visitors that pervades cultures all over the world.

Quick update from Mali

Anne-Claire and Haoua in Kayes

We’ve been on the road for the last few days, including about 21 straight hours yesterday ending about 3:30 at a little hotel that thankfully is a true oasis in the chaotic bustle of Bamako. Today, we head out to a Peace Corps Volunteer’s village about 150 km east of where we are now.

I have a couple more posts from Morocco to put up, and then a few from Senegal. Senegal was a terrific. It’s amazing what a little rain and a coastline does for a country. The trouble is, we’re not likely to have great access to internet, though if we do, I’ll try to get a post or two up. So, if you don’t hear from us for a while, don’t worry. Our plan – always mutable, of course – is to head to eastern Mali for a few days, check out Dogon country, then return to Bamako for a flight to Niger next week. Flying ended up being cheaper than the several days of travel and the visas for Burkina Faso at ~$100 apiece.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Anne-Claire and a little girl named Haoua, who was drawn like a magnet to us at our bus stop in Kayes a few hours inside the Senegal-Mali border and thought nothing of hopping up on her lap, to her mother’s delight. You’ll hear from us soon!