My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.
My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today we tour deep wells of the Maghreb, and dine with Doug’s friend Said.
It’s a beautiful, leisurely morning in the camel camp. Moha lights sticks of incense and pokes them into the sand at four corners of the courtyard. It’s a practice I experienced at the kasbah the day before, and one I continue on weekends at my home in Seattle, to remind me of this experience.
I would be happy to stay for a few more days, but I’m assured there’s still a lot to see on our Moroccan tour. After breakfast, we mount our camels and say goodbye to the Erg Chebbe dunes, and head back to the Camel’s House in Merzouga. We find Mohamed there, refreshed and smiling and ready to roll on the next leg of our journey.
We stop at a store that sells fresh camel milk, and are invited to the pens out back. Catherine tries her hand at milking a camel, while I watch a jealous baby camel trying to get his share. There’s a blue-eyed camel here, which Doug says is pretty rare.
While Doug and Catherine are talking shop with the owner, I step back inside and find an open door, and step through to a ‘dinner and a show’ place that has Berber tents set around the center courtyard.
Further down the highway we start to see large flat pyramid shapes in the desert, and learn it is a system of deep wells for water. One of the really great things about this trip is that Doug gives a comprehensive picture of the culture here, a nice mix of new cities, old sites, everyday life and agriculture. We pull over at a point where you can follow a staircase below ground to see the well structure. He reminds us of the aqueducts we had seen earlier in the trip, and how the systems all tie together to support this agricultural center of the Maghreb.
After our tour of one of the deep wells, we make a stop on the highway somewhere between Merzouga and Tingher. Doug walks us over to a Berber tent and introduces us to his friend Youssef, who has already ordered pizza for our lunch. It’s a delicious affair, built like a 12″ calzone but with very thin crusts, stuffed with kefte, egg and almonds. Youssef pours the obligatory tea afterward, and then takes out his drum.
His tent is divided in half at the ridgepole, with half of it serving as a restaurant, and the other half as a gift shop. The textile is rough woven (tabby weave perhaps) goat hair. The walls and roof were made of the same type of material, layered in places and whipstitched at the edges, and reinforced with tension bands at the stress points. The the roof was supported by leather straps. The cinch that tightened the tension band was made of wood, and Youssef showed me how it worked. There’s no metal here, all of the hardware is carved from wood.
After learning about how his tent hardware worked, I wandered around admiring his wares. In spite of Youssef’s attempts to sell me a pastel colored length of cotton in pink or green, I buy one in Tuarag-indigo, and, demonstrate to my travel-mates how to fashion it into a turban like Moha had showed me at the desert camp at the Erg Chebbe.
I sit down and make a comment about the fun things for sale on the other side of the tent, including a silver pipe and a dagger I’d like to bring home but thought I would not be able to get it through the airport. “You can’t get anything through the airport,” Catherine responds, and everyone laughs at the reference to my still errant luggage.
Our next stop is the Hotel Tomboctou, a kasbah built in 1944. Unlike most kasbahs that were built as fortifications, this one was built as a reception hall. Their restaurant was even draped like a tent! You can read more about the history of this kasbah here.
Catherine and I visit a local hammam, which turns out to be very different from what I experienced in Istanbul. This one is small, very noisy, and more utilitarian than spa-like. We change in a common area and are given a bucket for our shampoo, and are taken to another common room where a bucket of hot water is thrown onto the floor. We lay down on the heated tile floor for a steam and a scrub, but there’s no massage or cooling bath that follows like in a Turkish hammam. After about 45 minutes we are sent back to the changing room, and after tipping our attendants, we leave, cleaner but slightly deaf…
Dinner tonight is at the home of Said, another friend of Doug’s. We drive up to a wall with a huge metal door, and pound the ring as you would to gain entry into a castle. Inside the gate we walk to the building that is his home. The single room is enormous, with couches lining all the walls but grouped in a way that partitions the room into about five distinct seating areas. The walls are pale and bare, the ceiling bordered with heavy, ornately carved crown moldings and a central medallion from which a lantern is suspended. The couches are multicolored, and the floor is completely covered with Berber rugs. We turn to meet Said.
What can I say other than Doug has the coolest friends! Said is tall and thin, with sparkling eyes shadowed only by his large turban, and a smile that takes up half his face. He’s the gregarious poster child for “Happiest Man on the Planet.” He seats us and pours tea, offered with plate of wafers and nuts, and then leaves to check on dinner which is being prepared in another building.
A short time later, his sisters arrive with kofte tagine, which Said follows with a huge platter of chicken skewers. Just when we think we are done, another sister brings in a massive tagine filled with enough couscous, eggplant and carrots to feed 20 people. “Eat, eat!” she says. We take turns going around the table, taking a spoonful of couscous, which I think we do in 3 rotations before we protest that we have truly eaten our fill. In comes a large bowl of apples, which she peels and quarters and hands pieces to each of us to eat with our tea.
After dinner, the usual participatory drumming commences as a competition between Said and Doug, who can really play a mean drum. I am handed a drum at one point and I do my best to keep up. Mohamed whips out his flute. Mama and Sister bring out fancy dresses and headwraps, and transform Brenda and I into Berber brides.
There are so many smiles here, and after four hours it is hard to leave…