It was midnight in a nearly deserted bus station on the outskirts of Marrakesh, and my fiancee and I had one-way tickets to the edge of nowhere. We knew we wanted to see the great Sahara–after all, that was why we had come to Morocco–but plans? Provisions? We hoped the Universe would take care of us. We never know how, but it usually does.
“Is this the right place for the bus?” asked an exuberant young man in his early twenties, sporting dreadlocks and wearing a long white robe. Since it was a bus station, this seemed fairly obvious, but we nodded “yes” and he settled in next to us and introduced himself as Ali. He asked where we were headed. I said “M’Hamid,” and his grin widened even farther.
“I live there! I am happy to see you safely to the desert!” he exclaimed. We then watched as our new friend cautiously approached a vending machine and seemed genuinely amazed at its ability to dispense a cold soda.
Ali was gregarious, warm, and crazy–qualities we happen to appreciate–so we decided to trust him. Friends and family who had cautioned us about traveling to a Muslim country in the wake of 9/11 would think we were the crazier, but we had already learned that such genuine hospitality towards strangers is part of what is best about Morocco.
Just before two in the morning, we all piled onto the bus. Our dilapidated Greyhound swerved its way through hairpin switchbacks across the Atlas Mountains; 8 hours and only 160 miles later, we finally arrived in Zagora, bleary-eyed and slightly battered. Ali suggested taking a break before continuing on to M’Hamid by taxi, so we dropped our packs in the back room of his friend’s souvenir shop and had some tea. Surrounded by temptation, we gave in and bought a wooden mirror inlaid with henna-dyed camel bone and a couple of traditional headscarves for our desert sojourn.
We continued our break at Prends Ton Temps, a hostel run by another of Ali’s many friends. With open arms, the owner smiled and beckoned us in, “Welcome! Please, take your time.” We soon learned that Belaide was a Tuareg musician whose warm hospitality is expressed by his deep voice; a mix of Bobby McFerrin, James Earl Jones, and Louis Armstrong.
We were joined by Ali’s girlfriend, Nezha, who introduced us to the music of Tinariwen, a band of desert rebels from northern Mali. However, the real musical treat came after lunch, when Belaide took up his oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument) to play a traditional Berber folk song for us. Behind him was a map of the Sahara painted on a cracked wall, its colors bleached by the sun. Ali joined in with a hand drum, and as Belaide sang, a sense of peace and belonging overcame us. We could make out only the refrain, “Mama Afrika Zina”, but the song would echo in our souls for months to come.
Afterwards, it was time to continue onward so we hired a taxi to take us through the Draa river valley to M’Hamid, where we arrived just before sunset. We were dropped off at an unfinished hotel without a front door. As Ali hopped back in the cab, he shouted, “Please come have dinner with my family. Meet me at my shop in the center of town.”
After freshening up, we walked to what passed for “downtown;” a small cluster of souvenir shops, tour operators, general stores, and Internet kiosks. We arranged for a two-night tour package and were given a lesson in traditional Berber textiles from his cousin the rug shop owner. We then strolled down dark sandy streets to the home that Ali shared with his parents and younger siblings, as well as Nezha and her children.
Their home consisted of four small rooms off a large central area, with sandals haphazardly piled near the door. We settled down onto overlapping carpets in the living room around a brazier and a small tea chest. There was a black and white TV in one corner, and a decorative bellows hung on the wall next to a picture of King Mohammed. Excited by strangers, the five youngsters swarmed around us while Ali’s mother prepared tea.
She filled a kettle with water and placed it upon the lit brazier, coaxing the coals to life with a few quick blasts from the bellows; then she arranged a dozen small glasses on a silver tray, tarnished with frequent use. When the water was warm, she placed a handful of leaves into the kettle, opened a drawer in the chest and withdrew a conical brown block of sugar and several nuggets of amber, the resin of the acacia tree that grows in the desert. Using a small hammer, she broke off bits of both and added them to the brewing tea. After a few minutes, she began a complicated set of pourings into and out of the glasses until all were half full. We raised our glasses together and drank the strange brew. Unlike the sweet mint tea we’d become used to, this was Berber Tea, made slightly bitter from the acacia resin. “We drink tea 12 times a day for good luck,” Nezha informed us as Ali’s mother poured the next round.
After tea, the children went to bed, Ali’s parents retired, and the four of us sat around a beef tajine made with potatoes and olives. We ate traditionally, using our fingers and bread to scoop up the delicious stew. It was such an unexpected honor, to be welcomed into their home, share some tea and a meal, and to witness the inner workings of a Moroccan family.
Early the next morning, we returned to the main square to join Nezha for breakfast. Then we purchased a case of water and were driven to the outskirts of M’Hamid where our camels and guide were waiting for us. My fiancee’s ride was a friendly white racing camel named L’Habir. Mine was L’Segal; bigger, brown, and the designated cargo camel, carrying our change of clothes, food, and water in two large straw baskets. Our guide, Abrahim, was on foot and wore a black head scarf, sandals, and a long white robe, a small leather satchel slung across his shoulder.
He led our camels through the lush palmerie to the chest-high rolling dunes beyond, scattered with shrubs and exposed rock. Every sound was amplified by the silence of the desert: the soft plodding of the camels walking across the sand, flies buzzing about their heads, the creaking of leather and wool saddles, the whistling of wind that sounded at times like a busy road, and the occasional singing of our guide.
The shadow legs of our dromedaries grew longer in the late afternoon sun. Shortly before sunset, we arrived at Erg Lihoudi, the closest dunes of significant size, where there was a bivouac comprised of an elaborate dining tent and several smaller sleeping tents. We watched the sun set over the dunes. As night fell, candles and lanterns were lit, giving the sand a warm glow.
We sat down to dinner with couples from London and Switzerland, trading stories of shopping in Marrakesh and camel riding. Afterwards, everyone gathered around a campfire. The Moroccans sang, clapped their hands, and played drums using empty water barrels. As the evening wore on, we remained by the dying fire, talking with the locals about America. Orion was high in the sky over a moonlit desert by the time we retired for the night.
We woke to find that the wind had picked up and everything in our tent was covered in sand. Shortly after breakfast, we climbed back onto our camels for the return trip, our headscarves wrapped across our faces. The gauzy material served to block the blowing sand, yet still allowed us to see. The sand flowed like smoke over the dunes and into the air at the same time it slithered on the ground like snakes. The desert was alive.
Once back in M’Hamid, we traded our camels for 4x4s. We piled into one with a still-alive-and-barely-kicking lamb, destined for the evening meal, strapped to the roof rack. Then one of the Moroccans climbed on top of the lamb and we took off across the bumpy terrain.
We arrived at the foot of Erg Chigaga just before sunset. The majestic dunes stretched for miles, taking our breath away. We dropped our gear and hiked up one of the nearer slopes. While the cloudless horizon was unremarkable, the sands all around us changed colors with the dying sun.
After dinner, music called everyone to the fire pit, burning bright and hot in the night. We were excited to see that Belaide was the guest musician for the evening, joined by a half dozen others playing hand drums, clapping, and backing vocals. Guests took turns smoking the hookah and engaging in idle conversation. Emboldened by the spirit of the Sahara, the fire, and the music, my fiancee began to belly dance, much to the surprise of the Moroccan tribesmen. Belaide dubbed her Fatima Couscous, meaning “pretty woman dancing among the stars in the night sky.”
Later, we relaxed beside the fire as the music wound down and we talked with Belaide long after everyone else had gone to sleep. The drumming and singing we could still hear in the distance was just a group of Berber nomads partying even later into the night a few dunes over.
In the morning we drove across the rocky terrain back to M’Hamid, and then by multiple buses over the next twenty-four hours to reach the coastal town of Essaouira. The vast expanse of golden sand was replaced by an even vaster expanse of deep blue water. Even though we’d left the desert behind us, the Sahara had taken hold of our hearts, tugging at our thoughts like a song you can’t get out of your head.
Eventually we left even Morocco behind. The souvenirs we’d purchased–Ras el hanout (a special blend of more than thirty spices), an embroidered white djellaba (a traditional, long, loose-fitting robe), and that wooden inlaid mirror–are some of our most loved possessions. However, it was the simple yet exotic food, the dynamic geography, and the warm-hearted people which made us fall in love with Morocco.
Thankfully even the Sahara has Internet access. Four months later, I sent Belaide an email:
I have a favor to ask of you. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I would very much like a recording of “Mama Afrika Zina.” Liz and I are getting married in July, and I would like to give her the gift of your voice at our wedding.
After five more months of sporadic communication, not knowing whether my wish would be granted, I received a small white cardboard box in the mail. It contained matched pairs of hand-painted glass votive candle holders, beaded necklaces with silver talismans meant to ward off evil spirits, silver rings, and a CD. Not just an audio recording, there were two videos of Belaide wishing us well and playing the song, complete with a panoramic view of Prends Ton Temps. I was blown away by the generosity of this Tuareg musician and campground owner whom we’d met only briefly.
A few weeks later, on our wedding night, I played the videos for Liz and a handful of our closest friends and family in the “Moroccan chill gazebo” that we had created as the backdrop for our ceremony. As we lay on overlapping rugs with the flickering lights from a dozen lanterns, Belaide’s warm voice brought the Sahara to us and we cried tears of joy. Little did we know what would happen when we put our faith in the strange young fellow at the Marrakesh bus station, but that simple act of trusting a complete stranger led to one of the most profound travel experiences of our lives.
Ted Beatie was born with the soul of an adventurer and is happiest when he’s off the beaten track. His favorite places include the Sahara desert, 100 feet underwater among the coral reefs of Fiji, and Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. While he calls himself a diver, firedancer, aerial acrobat, actor, technologist and cyclist, his true passion is showing people a side of the world that they didn’t realize was there, through photography and writing. He is active on Facebook and Twitter, and maintains a travel blog and photo gallery at The Pocket Explorer. He is also the managing editor for Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding Blog, and curates weekly Vagabonding Case Studies of real people going on, currently on, or returned from long term travel.
“A Saharan Love Story” won a Bronze Award in the Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.