I met M & E on the ride from Chefchaouen to Fes. I was still reeling from having been hustled onto the bus, impatient driver tapping toes as I carefully stowed my pack below in the cargo, insisting that I must hurry – as if we were already running late. We did not end up leaving for another half an hour. This was a stark contrast from the courteous and professional attitudes of bus drivers in Turkey. I found myself staring out the window at the open, unattended cargo doors, concerned for the safety of my bag. I was not even 100% certain I was on the right bus. Oh well.
I notice three other backpackers arrive, hesitate about trusting their packs to the cargo hold with an impatient ticket seller arguing that no, luggage would not be allowed on board the coach, all packs must go below. For a moment it looks as if the travellers would turn their backs, refusing to be separated from their belongings. They climb on board, making their way to the only remaining seats at the rear of the bus in the rows behind me.
Our mutual concern for the welfare of our bags, and shared mild uncertainty if we were indeed on a bus heading towards Fes, got the conversation rolling. Travelling solo long term has helped me hone my ability to read the people around me, to pick up when I am chatting with someone I just know is friend material versus encounters with folks with whom I am less likely to click. An important skill to cultivate while travelling, otherwise memories of days spent exploring exciting new locales risk becoming overshadowed with a parallel regret of saying ‘yes’ to the wrong companions. I knew before the end of our 4 hour bus ride that M & E were my peeps.
We agreed to share a hostel room that night in Fes and to continue on towards the desert together the next day. I think I laughed harder that night than I had at any time in the previous 6 months. It was the beginning of a fantastic travel collaboration that lasted until my final days in Morocco more than 2 weeks later.
After another, longer busride, 8 hours overnight, we arrived in Hassilabied. My couch surfing host had agreed to accept M & E’s request as well and insisted on meeting us at dawn when the bus was due to arrive. We were advised to rest, I must have looked a mess all droopy eyed from a night void of sleep (will I ever learn how to sleep sitting up?), but my eagerness to see the sand dunes was reflected in the faces of the other two. There was no way anyone was going to lay down without getting our toes into the sand first.
How to explain that moment when the desert loomed before me for the first time, reflecting pink in the morning light? The simplicity of this world of sand shone in stark contrast to what I am most familiar with: lush forests and fertile coastlines, surrounded by a thousand shades of green. A sense of peace settled over me, I knew I wanted to ride into that landscape.
We spent that evening sitting on top of a dune, goofing around and rolling down the slopes, sitting in contemplative silence, watching trains of camels being led in and out of the village, groups of sand buggies and motorcycles ripping dust trails in the distance, even a jeep drove past to empty out a group of what looked like local teenagers onto a parallel peak as we all watched the sun set.
We talked to our host about arranging an excursion farther into the desert for one of our 3 nights visiting. I had been warned ahead of time that ‘camel’ rides were unexpectedly uncomfortable, but 15 minutes in I had the rhythm and found that I actually liked the way the dromadaire moved (one hump = dromadaire, two humps = camel). We ate delicious tagines in a colourful tent, listened to drumming and singing around a camp fire, and dragged our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars.
Riding on the back of a dromadaire is nothing like riding a horse. Two left legs move, then two right legs take their turn, creating an awkward jerking back and forth action paired with short, quick ups and downs. The trick to is let your hips follow and to keep your shoulders still. If you know how to belly dance you will be fine. The really unnerving part is when they stand up and sit down. First the back legs go up, then the front, tilting at what feels like a 90º angle but which is actually closer to 45º. There are no ladders for us to climb onto their backs once standing, so the rider gets tilted back and forth, clinging to the saddle and sometimes the tour guide.
E’s dromadaire took a liking to M’s blond hair, reaching forward for nibbles when we slowed down and the gaps closed between animals. During a rest period the group was shown how our individual dromadaires liked to be pet. Except for me, I got the grumpy one and was advised not to touch him. Fortunately no one was spit on.
We visited the neighbouring town of Merzouga. The promise of a bank machine drew us there but a long breakfast on a rooftop patio and conversation with a local Berber resident tempted us to stay. We were guided through an oasis lined with vegetable gardens, following his tall and lanky silhouette, stopped in for mint tea and more insight into the local tourist attractions.
I learned about Moroccans who came to the desert to be buried in the hot sands as relief for their aches and pains. I wondered about the empty streets and was told about the Spanish who would start coming in droves in 2 weeks to holiday during Easter. We found out that dromadaires were not usually ridden, but used for transporting camp gear, food, and goods for sale. I also found out that it is possible to arrange more personalized walking tours into the desert. Put that last one on the list for next time.
And I learned that the sand dunes play an important role in the cycle of water, a precious resource. What looks like an endless expanse of parched landscape is actually one large, slow draining, water filter. When the rains do come the water is stored in the sand and released over time, a rationing system designed by Mother Nature.
I made my way to Morocco with the purpose of seeing the desert. Today I cannot think of my first glimpse of the Sahara without an image of these two hooligans coming to mind. When I am asked if I ever get lonely travelling solo I respond that I am hardly ever alone unless I choose to be, and then I share stories of my time in Morocco with M & E.
I lucked out that last day in Chefchaouen.