Wednesday, 28 November 2007

After packing a backpack for our overnight trip into the desert, we were waiting in front of the hotel for Mustafa to pick us up. We talked a little with a different driver outside, and when we told him we were sleeping in the desert that night, he said we would be in a “thousand star hotel”. We couldn’t wait!

We met Mustafa for a morning trip to the nearby town of Rissani. There we were met by a local guide, a man who lives in Rissani and was able to show us around the town. I think I’m figuring out how this works. With a guide, you get a real glimpse of what life is like in the town, walking down dirt roads alongside women completely covered in their black haiks, see the mosque (just the outside, and perhaps a shadowy peek into the interior through an open door), the schools and homes. Your guide tells you about the town, its history and its people. Then you are taken somewhere to buy something. I think that’s really how things work here, no matter where you go. If we had come without a guide, we may have been able to avoid the rugs, but we wouldn’t have seen many of the cool things we saw.

We began our walk down a dusty dirt road. Nate found a small stick and a rock, and began using it as a chisel and hammer to write his name in the dust, or drill small holes in the ground along the way. Benji found several sticks and kept trying to pick up rocks with them like chopsticks. This was not the quickest way to walk, and soon there was quite a distance between Clay, Alayna, and the guide, and the boys and me.

Two women in black haiks walked beside us, they seemed very shy, just peering around their head coverings every now and then. One of the women smiled at me and said “Salaam” in a soft voice, then hurried alongside her friend. Every once in a while she would lovingly pat a bundle on her friend’s back, I figured there must be a little baby in there somewhere. Sure enough, we stopped and the woman with the baby looked back and smiled, then lifted her robe to let me take a peek. Cuddled deep inside this nest of black, tied to her mama’s back, was a teeny little girl, a white headband around her little red head. She grunted and gurgled but never opened her eyes, such a sweet little bundle. I told her thank you and we went our separate ways.

We had asked if we could see a school while in the town, we see so many kids running around. Our guide led us into a dirt courtyard surrounded by humble buildings. I don’t think they normally let strangers into their schoolyards, so I didn’t feel comfortable walking over to the classrooms to look inside, but I could imagine how the kids would play in this dusty playground during breaks. Children are released at lunchtime to go home and eat, and often when we enter a town we encounter tons of kids walking along the road, some on the backs of donkeys their mothers are leading.

We walked through the cool courtyard of a mosque, admiring the tile work and intricate writings of the Quran all around the borders. Our guide took us into the ruin of a ksar (they say “ex-zar”), which was a group of homes surrounded by a wall where many families would live. A family still lives within the crumbling walls of this old ksar, and we were allowed to see some of the rooms of their home and the courtyard that once held a beautiful garden. An old man sat in a chair near a window, smiling and saying “Salaam” as we passed through. On the walls were pictures of past kings of the current dynasty (which started right in this area), and one of the current king holding his baby son. Everywhere we go we see pictures of the king, they must distribute them for people to hang in their homes, offices, stores and restaurants. It’s kind of strange, I can’t imagine seeing framed pictures of George Bush everywhere I went, as if he were everyone’s personal friend.

Next, our guide took us on a walking tour through a very old kasbah, where water ran down the middle of the dirt path (we stayed on the edges, trying to keep the kids out of the mud and trash that accumulated down the middle). The path was narrow, we could touch the walls on both sides many times, and at one point we walked down a covered walk that was totally dark, feeling the sides of the wall to the other side. We passed people going about their daily lives, and I kept wondering, did they live here? Amongst these mud walls and narrow alleyways? No windows looked out, this was the blind architecture Mustafa told us about, where women were kept hidden in their homes, and only looked in, towards the courtyards.

As we walked, kids began to follow us. Little kids, maybe five to six years old. We couldn’t speak to them but I wanted to somehow communicate. They seemed so sweet and friendly. I reached into my purse, thinking I might have something to share, and found a half full box of tic tacs. I intended to take it out and give each child a tic tac, but as soon as it was out of my purse one of the little boys grabbed it out of my hand! I thought maybe he misunderstood, that I wasn’t giving them all to him, so I kept a grip on it and tried to take it back. No chance! He had a tight grip on the box and ripped it out of my hands, then danced off a few feet. His poor friends who got no tic tacs huddled around me, trying to get a glimpse to see what other wonders might be hiding in my purse, so I quickly snapped it up.

We had made some “friends”, and their number grew as we continued through the town. I think they must have been spreading the word through their underground kid network, “sucker American woman on the way”, and they came out in droves. I held up my hands and said “No more, I’m sorry,” but they either didn’t understand or didn’t believe me. We passed some women baking bread in an outdoor oven, they quickly covered their faces when they saw Clay and our male guide. We passed a girl maybe eight years old with a baby strapped on her back, playing near a rushing creek. When Clay asked if he could take a picture, she held out her hand and said, “No, no, no.” We all laughed and some veiled women across the creek, busily washing a rug in the rushing water, giggled at this feisty girl.

Our guide told us that twice a year, water is released from a dam for fifteen days that rushes into these towns. The water is meant to water the date palms that this region is famous for, but the women take advantage of all this water and come out in droves with their rugs and other large items. They load them up in dusty wheelbarrows and bring them to the waterside, where they wet and soap and scrub them down. It seemed like a sort of party to me, all these women in groups along the water, laughing and talking with kids running all over the place. I thought how fun it would be back home if my friends and I all got together once a week and did our laundry together while our kids ran around.

The inevitable rug shop appeared and we were ushered in to “learn about the Berber people and their handicrafts”. We sat on the bench while he brought us sweet mint tea, but instead of launching into his rug spiel, the man really began to tell us about the Berber people. How until fifty years ago, a man couldn’t talk to a woman unless she was in his family. If he arrived in a town and was lost and there were only woman around, he must turn his back to ask her the way. We learned how a girl with one brooch was available to marry, while a woman with two brooches was taken. When a girl married, sometimes at age 14 or 15, they were not allowed to go home for one year for fear they wouldn’t return to their husband. What a hard life that must have been.

We learned how different tribes stitch symbolic things into their rugs, the mountains and rivers and Fatima’s hand (Fatima was Mohammad’s daughter, and is thought to bring good luck, we often see her hand on doors or as part of decorative tile work). The rug man showed us examples of different kind of jewelry they wore, he told us how they wove with cactus silk instead of animal silk. We learned all sorts of interesting things, and then the rugs began to roll out.

The man was nice, he told us, “I will show you rugs, if you do not buy, we are still friends.” Clay told him, “Thank you for talking with us, but we really don’t think we want any of these rugs today.” The man nodded, and said, “Let me just show you . . .” and brought out some smaller rugs. He demonstrated how they rolled up very small, and could be carried instead of shipped. Now this was interesting, one of the main reasons we had avoided the rugs was the really high shipping price. Maybe a rug on each of the kid’s walls, or spread across the bottom of their beds . .  .

The man saw the interest and invited us to the floor for a little bargaining. After deciding which ones we were interested in, we all sat in a circle, Benji in my lap and Clay with the calculator on his cell phone out for quick money converting. The man wrote a price on a piece of paper and handed it to me, I looked at it and told the kids we were probably not going home with a rug. “Don’t get your hopes up,” I told them. I was afraid of insulting the man when I wrote my bargaining price, we were not going to spend a lot of money on something we never intended to buy in the first place. But he assured me that we could not insult him with our offer. The bargaining went on, back and forth. “Maybe some less expensive rugs?” I ventured.

They brought a few, but the man really wanted to sell the original three. “Your best price, write it here, just one more time, your best price,” he urged. We ended up settling for a price that was less than one fifth what he originally asked, and we are the proud owners of three small Berber rugs made from cactus silk. After paying, the man invited us to join them for some Rissani “pizza”. He boasted that nobody can make this pizza, they have tried but it is special. It wasn’t anything like our pizza, it was bread stuffed with meat and onions and it was very good. Nate had three pieces! With the bargaining behind us, it was a friendly lunch, we appreciated sitting with these men and not feeling pressured about anything but eating another piece of pizza.

After finished at the rug place, we said goodbye to our guide, and headed back to the hotel where we would rendezvous with the 4x4 driver. We would need a 4x4 to get to the dunes of Erg Chebbi and our tents for the night. We said goodbye to Mustafa and hopped into the big truck. The kids were overjoyed to discover there were no seatbelts. We soon hit the end of the paved road and headed across the sand, bouncing around and giggling. Our driver did a few fun things to make the kids squeal, they loved it.

As we drove we passed by several Berber nomads, some with their goat herds. Some young girls were hustling some baby goats into a small tent. The kids all ooo’d and aaahhh’d at the babies, and our driver turned towards the tents where the girls were. We pulled right up beside them, and one of the girls actually handed a baby goat through the car window so we could pet it! It was black with long, silky ears, so cute! What a different life those girls lead than Alayna, responsible for the goats, spending many long, lonesome hours in the desert following them around. What do they do for fun? Do they love their life? Do they know anything different?

We continued on our way, finally reaching our desert camp. Mustafa had told us there would be a row of “auberges”, which were like hotels, and behind them would be the tents. In my mind I pictured a strip of large-ish hotels, where the wimpy people slept, and then a few feet back some tents set up. I was actually a little disappointed, worried that being in the shadow of a large hotel would diminish some of the glamour and excitement of staying all night in the desert. Kind of like camping in the back yard, where safety and a toilet are always nearby.

It was nothing like I pictured. These “hotels” were small, one story adobe structures, and I don’t think there were any guests sleeping in them. They probably housed some of the Berbers who were in charge of the tenting operation. The tents were set way back, and faced some sand dunes, so you really did feel like you were in the middle of the desert. It turned out we were the only ones staying that night in our camp. Although they can accommodate up to twenty, this is not the tourist season. It seemed like the ideal situation. We had the beautiful camp all to ourselves, and the sky above was clear as a bell. We’d see lots of stars that night.

When we arrived they offered us some tea and nuts, and we sat under a canopy. The walls were bright blankets adorned with sparkling sequins, and the benches had fancy pillows to sit on. The kids sat for about two seconds before they took off into the dunes to run and slide and chase each other. They’ve missed having the freedom to just run in a wide open space, and this was perfect for them. There was plenty of wide open space!

We checked out our sleeping tents, and found mattresses on the ground with fresh sheets and nice, warm blankets to use when the desert night got cold. We discovered we had a real deal toilet to use in a separate tent, I had expected a hole in the ground and was pleasantly surprised. While the idea of sleeping in the desert was extremely appealing to me, I do love modern plumbing. The tents were arranged in a horseshoe shape, and between them all were spread dozens of rugs over the sand, and in the middle a pit for a fire.

We decided to ride camels to the top of the dunes to watch the sun set. This was a big thrill. The camels were made to kneel down, and we hoisted ourselves onto the saddle and held on tight while the camel lurched us forward and then backwards while standing up. Nate and Alayna shared one, I shared one with Benji, and Clay had one all to himself. The camels were tied to each other in a line, and Clay’s camel was on a very short rope so his huge teeth were never far from my behind, but it didn’t seem too interested in biting me.

We were led to the sand dune by two Berber men. One of them was young, barefoot, with a turban wrapped around his head. Under his jellaba we could see camouflage pants and a sweatshirt, and he had a beanie on under his turban, so I guess they get all dressed up for our sake. Too bad, they’d probably be more comfortable in what they normally wear, and we wouldn’t have cared either way. The other man also wore the jellaba and turban, and was much more talkative since he spoke a little English. Once at the top he showed the kids how to make baby feet in the sand using the side of his palm and his fingertips to draw little toes. He also shows them how to make a palm tree using his knuckles.

It was so quiet in the dunes. The kids, who got really far away, seemed like they were talking in a muffled closet when they yelled across to us. It was as if the air sucked the sound, there were no birds or crickets or other people. Just us, and the slippery sand sliding down the huge dunes as the kids ran up and down.

The kids ran and ran and ran, sometimes sinking in softer sand, trying to slide down backwards by pushing themselves down the dunes. The view was spectacular, and as the sun set we sat on a blanket and just stared and stared at the pinky sky, the rosy dunes, and the bright sun dipping into the horizon. Once the sun went down it started getting cooler and we decided to head back. The older man, the one who had drawn pictures in the sand, wanted to show us something first. He took out his bag full of fossils, polished bowls, and mortar and pestles, hoping for a sale. Even in the desert, we can’t get away from the sales pitch! We really had no cash, after saving stuff back for tips and things, I think he was offended when we only bought one tiny trilobite (prehistoric bug fossil) for a few dirhams.

It’s too bad, sometimes all this worrying about offending people because you didn’t buy something or didn’t tip as much as you were supposed to (tipping can be a mystery here, we learned that anyone hanging out by your car when you leave a hotel, even if it’s a security guard, is expecting some sort of tip, sheesh!) spoils things. It doesn’t seem to bother Clay too much, but I fret over these small things, try as I may to get over it and just enjoy the trip.

We made it back to camp and lurched back down to get off the camels, then played a little football while waiting for dinner. The sky grew dark and we lay on our backs and stared up at the stars, finding the Milky Way spreading across the sky. A man came and stirred up the fire, and while we feasted on soup, tagine chicken and vegetables, and oranges and pomegranates for dessert, some men began to play drums around the fire. The pomegranate is such a pretty fruit, the juicy red seeds looked like rubies nestled in the white flesh of the fruit. It seemed like the perfect exotic thing to eat in the desert under a bright Berber canopy.

The drums were great. After dinner we joined the men around the fire as they thrummed and beat a rhythm that seemed to get absorbed in the still, quiet night. The fire flickered and died down. After each song, one of the men threw some oil on the fire from a clay pot, and it would flare back up, shooting sparks into the night sky. Then they would all lean their drums towards the fire, warming them up so they wouldn’t get sharp, or flat, or whatever happens to a drum when it gets cold. Benji was sleepy, he crept into my lap and fell asleep during one song. Lids were heavy all around our side of the circle, so after one last song the men asked if Alayna and Nate wanted to try their hand at drumming before they went to bed.

One man would beat a rhythm, and then Nate or Alayna would try and mimic it. They had a good time, and realized what they had been listening to wasn’t that easy to play. I kept thinking to myself, we are in the Sahara desert sitting around a campfire playing drums under thousands of stars. It didn’t seem real.

One of the men asked when we wanted the lights turned out, we said twenty minutes and all headed into the tent to get ready for bed. I was eager for the lights to go out so we could really see the stars that were blanketing the sky. There weren’t many lights in the camp, a few over the table where we ate, and two in our tent where we would sleep, another by the tent to the bathroom. Benji and Alayna didn’t care about the lights, they ducked their heads under their blankets and fell asleep with all the lights still on in our tent. Clay, Nate and I went outside to sit on our backs next to the dying fire and wait. And wait. And wait. They forgot to turn off the lights, and while we could heard distant voices nobody really wanted to walk across the dark desert to find them.

Clay unscrewed the bulbs in our room so we could sleep, but before we tucked in we went behind the tents, where the circles of light didn’t reach, and admired the stars one last time. There were so many of them. Every once in a while a shooting star would move across the sky, and the Milky Way looked like a ghostly cloud. The world seemed big, and very, very quiet.

It was cold that night, the blankets they had provided were definitely needed, as were our long johns and clothes that we slept in. We even slept in our buffs (these elastic things that you can pull over your head and cover your ears with). As we sunk into bed, finding our comfortable position and arranging the blankets just right, Clay muttered, “Oh man. Pushups.” He had forty more to do, so that he wouldn’t break his streak of doing a hundred pushups a day for a year. So, he rolled onto the floor and did his forty. Now that’s dedication. Stubborness. Tenacity. Craziness?

There were a few nighttime trips to the potty, across the Berber carpets, under the stars. The man was right. We were staying in a thousand star hotel, the nicest thing we’ve seen yet.